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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.

What championship? Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs laugh it up in Miami

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Their drivers will be 100% serious as they battle for the NASCAR Cup championship on Sunday, but on Friday Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart injected quite a bit of levity into Championship Weekend.

Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, and Stewart, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, met with the media and matched each other for quips and one-liner banter that produced a great deal of laughter.

They were so good that they could probably turn Friday’s diatribe into a popular sitcom, like NASCAR’s version of the Odd Couple.

Prepare yourself for some great laughs. Here’s some of the highlights:

* Stewart started the press conference feeling a bit, well, underdressed. While he had a SHR team polo shirt, Gibbs was nattily attired in an expensive suit.

“Well, this is how you dress when you have one car in the championship, this is how you dress when you have three,” Stewart said, pointing first at himself and then Gibbs. “I walked in, I’m like, are you going to court today? Oh, wait a minute, he’s got three cars in, this is the way you’ve got to dress. You’ve got to step it up.

To that, Gibbs quipped his reply, This is the way Tony dresses, this is the way Joe dresses. Go.”

* It didn’t take long for trash talking to start. And of course, Stewart – one of the best in the game when he was a driver – couldn’t resist to try and get into Gibbs’ head.

“He’s nervous, I’ve got him all tore up,” Stewart said of Gibbs. “We were back there talking and he’s rubbing his forehead and everything else. He doesn’t know what to do.”

Gibbs apparently was anticipating that Stewart would start trash talking, so he injected his own reply.

“I had a flashback to my years with Tony,” Gibbs said with a smile. He demurred and didn’t elaborate further.

* Stewart and Gibbs obviously both touted the fortunes of their respective drivers and teams that are battling for the championship, but Stewart had an interesting analogy, going from momentum to poker to a bullet and gun.

“I’m proud of our group,” Stewart said. “I feel like we didn’t get off to the start that we were looking for, but as the season has come on, I feel like we’ve gained momentum and keep gaining momentum. We’re here, and that was the goal all along was to at least have one car here. I feel like it’s kind of like poker. It’s a chip and a chair. We’ve got one bullet in the gun, and we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”

* Gibbs had a little nudge at Stewart when the former was asked about his legendary work ethic, both as a NASCAR team owner and his previous tenure as a multi-Super Bowl winning coach.

“I take it you didn’t talk to Tony, he thought I loafed all the time,” Gibbs laughed.

After that, Gibbs talked about his family, particularly his grandchildren, who he has tried to steer in the direction of coaching football rather than being in NASCAR like their fathers, including Gibbs’ sons Coy and the late J.D.

“Now it’s Coy has a big part of this, and we know J.D. spent his entire occupational life, and I’ve got grandkids coming,” Gibbs said. “And honestly, I’ve tried to talk a couple of them into do you want to coach and things like that. I swear, each and every one of them said to me, no, I want to do what Dad did.”

* Normally a stoic and gentle human being, Gibbs can lose his temper at times. He was asked about chewing out Denny Hamlin for wrecking during a practice session for the Daytona 500, telling Hamlin “You’re paying for that car!”, only to have Hamlin come back and win the race.

That made Gibbs reconsider the punishment he imparted upon his driver.

“I was upset with what happened and then he turned around and won that next race, and I said, ‘Okay, you can forget that,’” Gibbs said. “I don’t think I’ve ever penalized anybody for anything, but I threaten them every now and then.”

Ehhhh – busted, according to Stewart.

That’s not true,” Stewart said to laughs.

Not missing a beat, Gibbs responded, prompting this exchange between the pair:

Gibbs: “On second thought, there is a driver I’ve worked with where we …”

Stewart: “I had to pay for two TVs in the lounge of the trailer that I broke.”

Gibbs: “I used to try and get to the hauler as fast as I could if he had a bad night because he was going to tear up the inside of the hauler.”

Stewart: “I feel like I got pretty good odds out of it because I think I broke five TVs where he said if you break another one this one is coming out of your paycheck.”

Gibbs: “I got him at Richmond one time, and I beat him in there real quick, and you were ticked off and he’s in there all flustered and everything, and he goes like, they usually turn to me after tearing stuff up, he goes, ‘I’m going to go out there and kick his’ — and I went like this, I started to go, ‘Okay, I think you should. Hoping somebody will put a lump on you.”

Stewart: See, as a good owner you should have thought of that first and I would have saved the trailer.”

A few moments later, Stewart sheepishly admitted “honestly, I can’t say that he did me, either,” meaning Gibbs actually never did tongue lash Stewart.

* Stewart then complimented Gibbs for his way of how he handles his drivers and how he has a knack of calming them down – even Stewart.

“A tongue lashing is because you’re upset about something,” Stewart said. “But when you take a step back and you say, what are you ultimately trying to accomplish out of it, what’s the right way to go about it with this particular individual. So I think it’s — I learned a lot from this guy in the years I was there.”

But Smoke couldn’t avoid getting in another zinger:

“I’ve said it a million times, if I didn’t work for him (Gibbs), I wouldn’t be where I’m at now. I wouldn’t be the things that I’m doing now. I wouldn’t be in debt like I am now. And I blame all of it on Joe.”

To his credit, though, Stewart wasn’t afraid to take a shot at himself.

When asked about the difference between being a driver and a team owner, Stewart spoke about his own maturing.

“Like Joe said, with time guys grow up,” Stewart said. “It took me a lot longer. I’m not even sure I’m there yet. I’m still a work in progress.”

* One of Gibbs’s favorite memories – and nightmares at the same time – was chasing Stewart to sign him originally back in the late 1990s.

Stewart had an attorney to help him, but pretty much negotiated his first deal with Gibbs by himself. Gibbs wanted to sign Stewart so badly that he was willing to concede to some special addendums to the contract, including allowing Stewart to compete in a number of dirt late model races.

Just when the deal was finalized, Stewart got a bit mischievous. He had one more demand.

“Cary Agajanian was my attorney at the time, and I looked at Cary, I said, ‘Do you see anything that stands out that we need to look at?’ He goes, ‘No, I’m happy. Are you happy?’ I go, I’m happy. We walk back in, and Joe goes, ‘So, what do you think? I said, Well, everything is good except for one thing, and Cary looked at me and Joe looked at me funny.

“I said, I want to drive the Top Fuel car at the (NHRA) U.S. Nationals next year, too. And immediately (Gibbs’) head started spinning off.  It looked like a horror movie.

“I let him go for about five seconds and Cary is literally kicking my leg under the table like what in the hell are you doing. And then I told him, I’m just messing with you, we’re good, we’re ready to do this.”

But Gibbs retaliated: Stewart was laid up at his parents’ home in Indiana after a bad wreck in an IndyCar race in Las Vegas.

“My buddies had been calling,” Stewart said. “I’d been really depressed because if you live with your mom and stepdad for a month, you’ll be depressed. But my buddies had been calling all day and it was AJ Foyt and then it was Mario Andretti and then it was Steve Kinser and this and that. None of them were (actually calling); it was all my buddies saying who they were.

“So my mom answers the phone. It’s 10:00 at night, and my mom goes, ‘It’s Joe Gibbs.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Sure, here we go, which one of these assholes is it now. So they hand the phone over to me, and I’m like, ‘Hey, Joe, how the hell are you?’ He goes, Tony? And I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, is really is Joe Gibbs.’

“That’s the way our whole relationship literally from the first phone call on because I obviously had to explain to him why I was being an idiot other than I was heavily medicated. Had to explain to him why I was being the way I was. That’s the way we’ve always been with each other. We’ve always had fun with each other. But I think as much as we’ve had fun, we’ve always had a high level of respect for each other, as well.”

Gibbs wasn’t going to let Stewart have the last word – or laugh.

“I couldn’t find him lots of times, I would call the girlfriend,” Gibbs said of Stewart’s girlfriend at the time. “I would call the girlfriend, and she would tell me where he was and everything. So about the third time I called the girlfriend, she goes, ‘That no-good rotten — don’t you ever call this house again.’ I went, ‘Well, that was done.”

To which Stewart quipped, “We were ready to hold auditions again (for a new girlfriend). It was time. What can I say?”

And then they got back to talk to racing. But that wasn’t nearly as funny as the rest of the press conference, for sure.

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Rotating the championship race to new tracks? Contenders have ideas

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Sunday’s Ford 400 will end an 18-year run for Homestead-Miami Speedway as the championship finale, which will move to ISM Raceway in 2020.

Should it stay there?

That became an open discussion among the championship round contenders Thursday at Championship Media Day.

Kevin Harvick, who has advocated rotating the finale for the past few years, suggested it again (without prompting) after the title-eligible drivers were asked for their feelings on leaving Miami.

In all honesty, it shouldn’t be in Phoenix (in 2021),” Harvick said. “I think having that championship race is important to new markets, new fans, exposing people to our sport.  It’s important. I think when you look at going to Phoenix, the things that it will bring to that facility, the new fans it will bring to that facility, they’re thriving on that exposure now even before the championship race is there. They will thrive on that notoriety, the things that happen for that championship race next year.”

After a Round of 8 finale at ISM Raceway that was criticized for a lack of passing (as many tracks 1 mile and shorter have been with the 2019 rules package), there were questions raised about the long-term viability of the Phoenix area oval playing host to the championship-deciding race.

But Harvick said the quality of racing shouldn’t be considered among the criteria.

“To me what happens in the race is irrelevant,” the 2014 champion said. “It’s great that we’re going to crown a champion. We all love Homestead. The event and the market and the notoriety, the new things that come to a new market that help carry that racetrack for a number of years to come are important.

“We have to use our championship event to rebuild enthusiasm in markets. I think that will be the first step to doing that.”

The Phoenix market has proved worthy with two consecutive grandstand sellouts, and it also has undergone a $178 million renovation that has been viewed as a major positive.

“Certainly, Phoenix has earned that opportunity with what they’ve done there and the fan support out there has been incredible,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think the plus about here at Homestead, we only come here once a year. Completely different racetrack than anywhere we go. No other track like it. No other mile‑and‑a‑half true oval. Long straightaways.  A lot of things are different about Homestead. We don’t race here in the spring. I like that fact.

“I don’t know that we should race for a championship somewhere where we raced already in the season, you know? You’re going to have an idea who is going to be good. This weekend is a total crapshoot because we haven’t been here in a year, it’s a new car, new tire, everything is different. You have no idea what to expect. That’s a good thing for the championship.”

Though there have been discussions about shortening the calendar length of the schedule, NASCAR would be limited on its venue options if the finale is kept in the mid-November timeframe it’s occupied for a couple of decades.

Besides Phoenix and Miami, the only other viable choices would seem to be Fontana (near Los Angeles), Las Vegas, Sonoma and Daytona (and the last two would seem unlikely anyway because of their road course and superspeedway designations).

Denny Hamlin vowed that the championship round eventually will return to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think the facilities could use updating, which I think they will,” Hamlin said. “This is not the last time the finale will be in Homestead. You can mark that down.”

“Phoenix now gets their time. They spent money on the facility. It’s obviously a huge sports town. They got nearly every professional sport there in that city. It’s just a good market for us. Why not continue to feed that momentum?”

Harvick said he had no overt preference on a location for the 2021 championship other than “it would not go back to Phoenix.That’s just really not the point of moving the championship race around to have it in the same spot consecutive years.

“So you’ve got (Fontana) in that mix. Vegas. Both of those racetracks would be great places to end the schedule.”

Joe Nemechek to break Richard Petty’s starts record tonight

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Veteran NASCAR driver Joe Nemechek is set to break Richard Petty’s all-time starts record in tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Petty and Nemechek both have 1,185 combined starts in NASCAR’s national series. The man with the colorful nickname of “Front Row Joe,” will pass “The King” as soon as he takes the green flag.

“That just shows, man, I’ve started a lot of races,” Nemechek said with a laugh in a recent interview with NBC Sports. “You don’t think about that as a racer, man. When you get done with one, you’re focused on the next one.”

As recently as two weeks ago, Nemechek wasn’t even aware he was close to breaking Petty’s mark.

“I had no idea about that,” he told NBC Sports.

He tied Petty’s mark by starting last weekend’s Cup race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

“Getting up there and tying Richard Petty’s all-time start record is pretty cool,” Nemechek said. “To me, Richard Petty is a legend. I was just starting when he was kinda getting done, the first couple years of my career.”

For the record, Petty’s starts all came in NASCAR’s premier series, ending when it was known as the Winston Cup Series. He has 15 additional starts in the old Convertible Series in 1958 and 1959, but those starts are not included in the combined starts mark.

Nemechek, meanwhile, amassed his 1,185 starts with 673 starts in Cup, 444 starts in the Xfinity Series and 68 in the Truck Series.

Once he passes The King, don’t expect the 56-year-old Nemechek to be slowing down any time soon. He plans on putting some distance between himself and Petty.

“I’ve had a great career, I’ve won races, I still enjoy it and there’s a lot of stuff going on in my schedule for next year where people want me to come drive, so we’ll surpass whatever it is,” said Nemechek, who has made a combined 27 starts this season with two more left to go (tonight’s Truck race and Sunday’s Cup season finale).

There is one current driver who is only 35 starts away from reaching 1,185 starts: Cup Championship 4 driver Kevin Harvick has 1,150 starts heading into Sunday’s season finale. Kyle Busch is sixth on the NASCAR all-time combined starts list with 1,035 starts.

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UPDATE: Truck qualifying, Cup and Xfinity practices rained out at Miami

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UPDATE:

Rain continues to be a stubborn thorn in the side of NASCAR at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The final scheduled NASCAR Cup practice session has been cancelled due to rain. That makes four sessions cancelled thus far today: the two Cup practices, the final Xfinity practice and qualifying for tonight’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 championship race.

Cup teams will get nearly one hour of practice Saturday from 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. ET to make up for losing both practices Friday. As a result, there will be no qualifying session for Cup drivers. The starting lineup for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 Cup championship will be set by the NASCAR Rule Book with the four Championship 4 drivers to start at the front of the field.

The Truck Race is still on track to run, with driver introductions scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. ET, and the race itself is slated to begin shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

Track drying efforts continue at the 1.5-mile oval.

We’ll update you as more information becomes available.

ORIGINAL STORY?

Rain punctuated with thunder and lightning has forced NASCAR to cancel three of today’s segments at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

* The NASCAR Cup opening practice, which was scheduled to go from 3:35 – 4:25 p.m. ET.

* The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series qualifying, which was slated to start at 4:35 p.m. ET.

* The NASCAR Xfinity Series final practice, which was scheduled for 5:35 – 6:25 p.m. ET.

As of 5:15 p.m. ET, the final NASCAR Cup practice session was still slated to run from 6:30 – 7:20 p.m., while the Ford EcoBoost 200 Truck Series championship race is slated to take the green flag shortly after 8 p.m. ET.

Because qualifying was rained out, the Truck Series starting lineup will be determined by owner points. The four Championship 4 drivers will start this way: Stewart Friesen on the pole, Ross Chastain third, defending series champion Brett Moffitt fourth and Matt Crafton will start ninth, according to NASCAR.

According to wunderground.com, the forecast for tonight calls for a temperature of 72 degrees and a 41% chance of rain to continue at the time the Truck race is set to start.

We’ll keep you updated on the conditions as more information becomes available. Please check back.

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