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Sweet 16: Todd Gilliland’s path to historic NASCAR championship

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Do you remember what you were doing at 16?

Bill McAnally was “fighting to get $2 to put gas” in his pickup in Ukiah, California, where he hauled bales of hay.

David Gilliland helped his dad, Butch Gilliland, field his entry in his first full-time season in NASCAR’s Winton West Series, which became the K&N Pro Series West circuit.

Chris Lawson, the son of parents who work in the insurance industry, chipped away at his own racing dreams in Dayton, Ohio.

In the last 15 years, McAnally won five of his record seven K&N West titles as a team owner. David Gilliland competed in 398 races in NASCAR’s three national series, including 332 in Sprint Cup. Lawson embraced the life of a crew chief.

All three men would help Todd Gilliland become NASCAR’s youngest champion.

THE NEW KID

McAnally only made 56 starts as a driver in what used to be the Winston West Series.

One race weekend, at All-American Speedway in Roseville, California, stands out to the owner of Bill McAnally Racing thanks to the helping hand of Butch Gilliland.

Gilliland flew from Anaheim to help McAnally with his car after he ran behind him in a previous race and saw how bad it handled as he ran behind it.

After they were done, Gilliland refused to let McAnally pay for his plane ticket.

“’I’m just glad you’ll be in a better car so I’m not in harm’s way,” Gilliland said.

Two decades later, at the same .333-mile track in Northern California, McAnally doused Butch Gilliland’s grandson, Todd, in a Gatorade bath, yelling “Congratulations, Champ!”

Todd Gilliland finished eighth last month in the Toyota / NAPA Auto Parts 150 to clinch the K&N Pro Series West title.

At 16 years and 5 months, the Riverside, California, native became the youngest NASCAR champion in history, topping the mark set a month earlier by Cayden Lapcevich (16 years, 10 months, 16 days) in NASCAR’s Pinty’s Series. Before that, Joey Logano held the distinction after winning the 2007 K&N Pro Series East title at 17 years, 3 months, 28 days.

“We had a lot of family there, that’s where almost everyone is from.” Todd Gilliland said a week after winning the title. “They all came out to the track to support us. It’s super cool to be able to take a picture with everyone I’ve grown up around.”

The path to those championship portraits started at Roseville in August of last year. McAnally held a two-day driver expo at his team’s shop and All-American Speedway.

Todd Gilliland, who won his first ARCA Racing Series start in May, was among the drivers invited, including Brandon McReynolds and Chris Eggleston.

Also present: former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, multiple NASCAR officials and representatives from NAPA Auto Parts, Toyota and the WIX Corporation.

Waiting for the drivers at the track were six K&N cars prepared by McAnally’s team. On the first day, each driver made three, 15-lap runs. After tune-ups based on driver feedback, they made  mock qualifying runs.

It was before the initial practice session that McAnally had his first lengthy talk with Todd Gilliland. McAnally said he thought the young racer seemed “really nervous.”

“His driving showed it,” McAnally said. “He wasn’t consistent, he wasn’t smooth. David (Gilliland) was on the radio leaning on him. The coach we had with him was calming him down, and by the second session he had calmed down and he went out there and ran some smooth, consistent laps. By the next day, he was the fastest, smoothest driver out there by far.”

Todd Gilliland also was impressed.

“We saw the A+ operation he had going on there, the people he had in place,” the driver said of McAnally in May. “We just felt it was the best fit for us this year.”

McAnally and his sponsors agreed.

Gilliland ran the No. 54 Toyota for McAnally at Phoenix at the end of the year. In his first K&N West start, he led six laps and won.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 21: David Gilliland, driver of the #35 Dockside Logistics Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
David Gilliland (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

FATHER-SON TIME

While David Gilliland had a hand in building his son’s cars, he didn’t get to see much of Todd’s career.

That’s what happens when your Sprint Cup Series career takes priority for 10 years.

But David was there when his son did donuts in a quarter-midget in a dirt lot across the street from the family’s Riverside home. He also saw Todd’s first quarter-midget race on his son’s fifth birthday, his ARCA win and the 2015 Phoenix race.

Without a Sprint Cup ride for the first time since 2006, David Gilliland finally experienced a full season of his son’s career.

And he did do so in his least favorite racing role – as a spotter.

“’I just didn’t want to be part of a problem or making a mistake or something like that,” David Gilliland said. “It was something (Todd) really wanted me to do.”

Instead of having a driver coach, spotter and crew chief taking to his son, David Gilliland would be the coach and spotter.

“I think that’s something that’s helped me a lot this year to have him tell me when I’m doing something wrong or right,” Todd Gilliland said. “He kind of makes myself better throughout the entire race. He also knows a lot about those cars and different situations that he’s been in before.”

The other voice talking to Todd Gilliland was Lawson, the crew chief who has worked with the Gillilands since 2014.

With that arrangement, Todd Gilliland won his first four K&N starts, tying the 60-year-old record set by Dan Gurney. His eight wins in 2016 surpassed the mark set Joey Logano (2007) and Dylan Kwasniewski (2014).

Source: Bill McAnally
Source: Bill McAnally

FILLING UP THE BOARD

McAnally was concerned.

Todd Gilliland hit his first real bump by finishing ninth in his second K&N East start at Bristol in April.

“All of sudden we’re off on our setup,” McAnally says. “We missed it. We had a top-10 car. So he finishes the race. I’m shaking my head, ‘How’s he going to be getting out of the car?’ All he’s ever done is win in a K&N car and now he’s fighting to be in the top 10.”

When he arrived at the No. 16 car, McAnally found his driver sitting on its door in good spirits.

“Lead a lap, top-10 finish,” Todd Gilliland announced. “I get two more splats on the board!”

On the wall of McAnally’s shop is a 10-by-20-foot board labelled “2016 Team Checklist.”

The board has 11 items that can be checked off by McNally’s four drivers for any given race. They include finish race lead lap, top-three finish, win race, and at the bottom, win championship.

Todd Gilliland was the only teammate to put a “splat” in every box.

While Todd Gilliland enjoyed a rookie season no one else has, including being named to the NASCAR Next class, he’s enthusiastic about learning what he hasn’t from his owner, father and crew chief.

Lawson saw that enthusiasm during the K&N East race in July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Todd Gilliland was in second on a restart with two laps to go. Corey LaJoie, a veteran of 37 K&N races, led.

“(LaJoie) just smoked us on the restart,” Lawson said. “He just wore us out bad, and right after the restart was over, literally going down the backstretch, Todd is about four car lengths back off of him and goes ‘Man, that is awesome. I need to learn how to do that.’

“To me that’s cool, not only that he realizes it, he understood what happened, he wants to step his game up to be that good. He wasn’t mad, saying we got beat. He said ‘man, I want to do that. I want to be able to do that.’”

He’ll get that chance next year, whether it’s in the K&N Series, ARCA or venturing into the Camping World Truck Series.

Before that, Todd Gilliland will celebrate his title Dec. 11 at the NASCAR Touring Night of Champions Awards.

Then he can start preparing for next season and giving people reasons to consider what they were doing at 17.

Winners and losers from Las Vegas

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WINNERS

Paul Wolfe — Great call to have Joey Logano not pit before the final restart. Of course it helped that six other cars stayed out. Still, the top two cars came down pit road and Logano, running third, stayed out and won.

Matt DiBenedettoFinishes second in his second race with the Wood Brothers.

Jimmie JohnsonScored his first top-five finish since last summer’s Daytona race.

Bubba Wallace Decision not to pit allowed him to finish sixth, giving him his best Cup finish on a 1.5-mile track.

LOSERS

Todd Gordon and Greg Ives— For every high, there is a low. Gordon apologized on the radio to Ryan Blaney for calling him to pit road while leading before the final restart. Blaney finished 11th. Ives called Bowman to pit road while running second before the final restart. Bowman finished 13th. Ives tweeted that he was “VERY frustrated with my call at the end not to game on old tires, especially in Vegas.”

19 pit crew — Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew got him into the lead under caution after Stage 2 but he had to return to pit under that caution to tighten loose lug nuts. Said Truex after the race: “We just need to quit having mistakes on pit road.”

William ByronLined up second on the final restart but contact with Matt DiBenedetto led to a tire rub and Byron falling back before he was involved in the crash that ended race. He finished 22nd.

Ross Chastain says his finish ‘unacceptable’ in place of Newman

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He scored a 10th-place finish in the first stage and ran as high as fifth Sunday in a car he never raced before.

Ross Chastain still had a harsh evaluation of his 27th-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the No. 6 Ford, which he drove in place of an injured Ryan Newman.

Chastain finished two laps down after causing the final caution on a Lap 262 spin, which he judged “unacceptable,” along with his restart performance (“guys kind of ate me alive”) as a substitute for Roush Fenway Racing.

“It’s hard to get out of the car after you have a top-10 car, and you go and run into people and pick the wrong lanes on restarts and then spin it out at the end,” Chastain said. “That’s pretty silly. Just a lot of mistakes on my end and then at the end just overdriving and for one position to be the first car a lap down. That’s unacceptable.”

Chastain had an average running position of 16.87 over the 400-mile race, which went south after he pitted under green from 15th on Lap 217 of 267. The yellow flag flew five laps later, and Chastain took a wavearound to restart 21st.

(Photo by Will Lester/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

On the restart, he made contact with Kurt Busch and pitted under green to fix a tire rub, which left him a lap down when he spun with five laps remaining.

“There were a lot of small mistakes on my end, but I learned a ton,” he said. “The car deserved a lot better finish.  Obviously, we showed that early and I just didn’t have great restarts. I just have to be better.

“RFR and everybody puts so much into these cars, and ultimately I’m the one holding the wheel.  We had such a good first stage and had so much confidence and from there I just started making mistakes.”

Chastain, who finished 10th in Sunday night’s rain-delayed Xfinity race, will be driving the No. 6 for Roush while Newman recovers from his Daytona 500 crash. In a statement from the team Sunday morning, Newman indicated he plans to drive again this season, but no timetable has been provided for his return.

Chase Briscoe wins rain-delayed Xfinity race in Las Vegas

Chase Briscoe
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Chase Briscoe won Sunday’s rain-delayed Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, beating fellow Ford driver Austin Cindric by almost three seconds to claim his third career Xfinity win.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver led 89 laps in the race, which began late Saturday afternoon but was red flagged on Lap 51 due to rain.

Briscoe and Cindric were the only Ford drivers in the field.

Ryan Sieg placed third to earn his sixth career top-five finish and his first on a 1.5-mile track.

The top five was completed by Daytona winner Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton.

“That was really a team win,” Briscoe told Fox Sports. “We were really good, then as soon as the sun went down when we were in dirty air, we just weren’t really good. In clean air, obviously there at the end we were really good. … This is something I feel we can do all year long.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

More: Click here for race results.

More: Click here for the point standings.

WHAT’S NEXT: Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway at 4 p.m. ET Feb. 29 on FS1.

Chevy drivers positive about new Camaro body after Las Vegas

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Positive reviews are in from a few Chevrolet Cup drivers after their first race on an intermediate track with the updated Camaro ZL1 1LE body, which was introduced this year in an effort to improve the manufacturer’s performance after two lackluster seasons.

Those reviews are backed by the final results for Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the chaos created by a last-lap crash, six Chevrolets finished in the top 10. They were led by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson placing in the top five.

That followed Chase Elliott leading 70 laps and winning both stages before his one-car incident in the middle of the final stage.

In last year’s spring race on the 1.5-mile track, only two Chevys – Kurt Busch (fifth) and Elliott (ninth) – finished in the top 10. Three Chevy drivers combined to lead 23 of the race’s 267 laps.

“We’re trying to just understand this new Camaro body and the setup that needs to go with it,” said Johnson. “We’re close, but there’s still a little bit more work for us to do on our car to get the balance between the clean air and the traffic closer. But for the first try on a downforce track, the guys did a really nice job.”

Johnson earned his first top five since last July’s race at Daytona. He placed 19th in this race last year.

“It’s really rewarding to see,” Johnson said. “Last year when we left here, we had quite the opposite feeling and were pretty worried about what the year was going to hold for us. So, it’s really nice to have that change of perspective now. There’s a lot of Chevys up front, one of our Hendrick cars led for a while. So, we’re going the right way.”

Johnson’s teammate, Alex Bowman, was running in second when the final caution came out inside 10 laps to go. After his team chose to pit, Bowman placed 13th.

“This new Camaro, for its first time on a downforce track, I’m just really pleased with it so far,” Bowman said. “I think it’s going to be really good for us. Obviously, I’m bummed out to finish 13th after staring at a second place or a win. But it’s part of it; it’s how racing goes. We win as a team and lose as a team. It just didn’t go our way there at the end.”

Last year, Chevrolet only earned seven wins, with two coming on 1.5-mile tracks. Bowman claimed one of those at Chicagoland Speedway.

Added Bowman: “Compared to how we started the last two seasons, I think we’ve got something for them this year.”

One Chevrolet driver said it was “still early” for assessing the new bodies.

“I think the Hendrick cars were really good,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who placed ninth. “I felt about the same as last year. So, we just have to continue to get better.”