Son of former Cup driver David Gilliland, the then 17-year-old had two ARCA Menards Series West titles along with 20 wins across the main ARCA series and the East and West Series.
“I really think that when I came to the Truck Series I was just ready to win,” Gilliland said. “I thought that it was going to be kind of easy.”
By the end of 2019 Truck Series season, Gilliland had failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and had just one win.
Gilliland said the experience “beat me down.” Now 20, Gilliland is in better spirits as one of 10 drivers who will compete for the Truck Series title starting Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
He’ll do so in the No. 38 Ford, which is fielded through a partnership between David Gilliland’s DGR-Crosley and Front Row Motorsports.
“It’s made me appreciate it a lot more,” Gilliland said Monday about making the playoffs after his KBM struggles. “The last two years, I personally expected to make the playoffs and I was expected to make the playoffs and finally being able to do it and seeing the excitement of my team … we’re a part of something that only 10 drivers are this year and it just makes me appreciate a lot more.”
Gilliland doesn’t yet have a win in 2020. Through 16 races he has four top fives and nine top 10s. He enters Bristol ninth on the reseeded playoff standings with 2,003 points.
“Obviously, personally as a team, we wish we would have won more races from here, but we still have a chance and that’s the ultimate goal, which is very important to us,” Gilliland said.
If Gilliland does get that chance, the guy who won the last Truck Series title, Matt Crafton, thinks he’s an underdog to look out for at the season finale.
“Kid’s got a lot of talent and he just needs, honestly, to get his head right,” Crafton said. “He’s got to get the confidence rolling. He was really, really fast at St. Louis (Gateway) and St. Louis reminds me a lot of Phoenix. If Todd can make it to Phoenix, he can definitely be one of the ones to race for a championship.”
Gilliland showed off what his team is capable of in the Aug. 30 race at Gateway. He led 75 laps and won the first two stages. But in the final stage contact with Sheldon Creed forced him into the wall and resulted in a 24th-place finish.
Gilliland’s aware “people have noticed the speed” he’s shown recently.
“Obviously, we still aren’t where we want to be week in and week out,” Gilliland. “We’ve kind of been hit and miss. There’s some weeks that you know, say Gateway, we were the dominant truck and it’s hard to be that dominant in one of these races nowadays. … We’ve had glimmers of that every once in a while, so we just need to do that more consistently and I think that’s in the details of the truck setup that the notes that we’re building and I feel like we’re getting better and better every week still.”
Compared to his experience with KBM last year, where he didn’t win until after the playoffs, Gilliland feels “in my heart” he’s been “more in contention” this season.
“Last year, we had some some weeks we’d be in contention,” Gilliland said. “I still showed up to the racetrack thinking we could win every Truck race (I) showed up to, but this year I just feel like our pit crew’s on it. Every time I come down pit road we’re gonna gain spots. I just really feel like we have all the pieces to be a championship contending team.”
While Gilliland enters the playoffs winless, he’s not alone. Four drivers, including former champion Brett Moffitt, have yet to visit victory lane.
Another one of them is Christian Eckes, who drives Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 18 Toyota.
After his own trying time at KBM, Gilliland was asked how much sympathy he has for the 19-year-old’s situation.
“But you pretty much just have to be the leader right off the bat. I feel bad, but also it’s part of learning. I think every single person in NASCAR has gone through it, you know, where you grow up a lot and then I think you’re just ready and stuff clicks easier. So I think everyone will get there in their time.”