Two years ago, Todd Gilliland entered the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series season – his second racing with Kyle Busch Motorsports – facing high exceptions.
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.
“Racing is hard,” Gilliland said. “I think when you walk in the doors at anywhere, you’re there for a reason. You have to believe that in your heart that you can do it and also, you have to kind of be the leader. And most of us being, you know, pretty young, not having much experience at these ranks, people don’t respect you right away and I think … there’s different ways to go about it.
“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.”
“I’ve been burning up the phone more in the last two or three weeks since I found out I wasn’t going to be back at JGR,” he told reporters this week. “Just trying to work on opportunities and find out what is out there for next year because I didn’t have really an inkling that I was going to be in that spot.
“I guess that’s probably more of what I’ve been focused on right now, which is unfortunate because I want to be focused on racing 100 percent and be able to do what I need to do there and go and be competitive each and every week. I’ve been putting in the time on that as well. It definitely seems it has been split more to the side of me trying to work on opportunities for next year.”
Jones declined to reveal which teams he’s had discussions with but is optimistic he’ll be in winning equipment next year.
“There are still some other dominoes to fall in the sport to make the decisions for them and what they’re going to do,” he said. “I feel good about the couple of opportunities that we’ve got out there right now.”
He also notes he faces some challenges in securing a ride.
“I don’t have sponsors with me to move around and any kind of money to bring,” he said. “That’s been part of the challenge.”
Joey Logano can relate to what Jones is experiencing. Logano was not retained by JGR, opening a place for Matt Kenseth to join in 2013.
Logano texted Jones to see how he was doing. Although they are not close, Jones asked to meet Logano for lunch to talk.
“He went from not being 100% competitive where he wanted to be at JGR to being obviously a champion after he left,” Jones said of Logano, who won the 2018 Cup title for Team Penske. “I kind of wanted to know what switched for him and what really clicked for him after he left. … It was an enlightening conversation.”
Jones’ immediate goal, is making the playoffs for a third consecutive year. The 24-year-old all but needs to win Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Daytona (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App) to do so.
“Both of those races my car was pretty destroyed, so I don’t know that laying back and trying to avoid the wrecks helps that much,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you’re still in it with five to go or 10 to go, even if you’ve got damage, it seems like it doesn’t really matter.
“I know there is going to be a lot of aggression.”
2. A life-changing experience
It’s tempting to look ahead to what could be, but Matt DiBenedetto is focused on making the playoffs for the first time.
DiBenedetto is 15th in the playoff standings heading into Saturday night’s race at Daytona. Byron, who holds what would be the 16th and final playoff spot trails DiBenedetto by five points. Johnson trails DiBenedetto by nine points.
“It’s probably going to be a game of survival when it comes down to the very end, especially as desperate as a lot of people will be,” DiBenedetto said. “We’ll be paying pretty close attention to what those guys are doing. Where they’re at. If they’re getting into any trouble or anything like that, but it changes lap by lap at Daytona.”
Two weeks ago, DiBenedetto led Byron by 37 points and Johnson by 57 points.
DiBenedetto’s advantage narrowed after he placed 15th at the Daytona road course and then 20th in the Saturday Dover race and 17th the next day. Johnson has finished no worse than seventh in the last three races. Byron scored two top 10s in those three races.
“As far as where my emotions are at I haven’t been able to answer it real well,” he said. “Because it’s like, man, am I excited that we have a shot to make the playoffs? For sure. Am I frustrated that we had a much bigger cushion and we had a bad couple Dover races and lost a whole bunch of points? Yeah. Am I a little uneasy knowing that the cutoff race is Daytona and not like a short track or some more straightforward race? Yeah.”
Should he get through Daytona, he’ll have a chance at the title. While Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will be the favorites, DiBenedetto could imagine being the champion in November.
“This stuff is life-changing for me if we make the playoffs,” he said. “Because not only knowing that we could just make them and be there, knowing that we have the speed and the team to really go and compete and hopefully make it through rounds and make a big splash in the playoffs and you’re in the fight for a championship.”
Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Jimmie Johnson are racing for the final playoff spots. While there is a chance both could advance, it’s possible they could race each other for the final playoff spot.
Johnson, the seven-time champion, seeks to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Byron seeks to make the playoffs for a second year in a row.
The question is how much will their teams work with each other?
Cliff Daniels, crew chief for Johnson, said he’s had conversations with Chad Knaus, crew chief for Byron.
“Very close in our communication in what we’re doing with our cars and what we’re doing with our strategy,” Daniels said. “I’m so thankful, along the course of my career, working with the No. 48. Chad, I was his engineer for a while, and he was a great leader and great mentor. He was very supportive of my switch to the role of crew chief on this team. He still loves Jimmie to death and loves his team.
“Chad and I were talking the other day and we both want each other to be in the playoffs, just not quite as much as we want ourselves to be in the playoffs, right? So, it’s been great to have a relationship with that team. Those guys have done a good job digging out of the few holes that they’ve been in. I know that they’re going to be strong and tough.
I hope to work with them, and we are going to work with them, all night Saturday night and put ourselves both in a good spot. And I would love to be side-by-side, door-to-door with them, with points in the bag, coming to the finish line for the final checkered flag with those guys. It would be a great position to be in.”
4. Is this his time?
Saturday night’s regular-season finale provides drivers outside a playoff spot hope. That’s not something they could truly say about past regular-season finales.
Only once in the last four regular-season Cup races did a driver outside a playoff spot finish in the top five. Bubba Wallace placed third at Indianapolis last year.
For those seeking playoff bubble drama, Indianapolis was not an ideal track to host the regular-season finale because of the unlikelihood of a surprise winner. Richmond hosted the regular-season finale before that. It’s last two regular-season finales saw only one driver outside a playoff spot entering that event finish in the top 10.
Daytona offers more of a chance for a surprise winner. Justin Haley scored his first career Cup win in last July’s rain-shortened race. Erik Jones scored his first career Cup win in the July 2018 race there.
That gives Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hope. He finished second to Ryan Blaney by inches at Talladega in June in the most recent superspeedway race.
Stenhouse’s previous two Cup wins came at Talladega and Daytona in 2017. Could he race his way into the playoffs with a win Saturday night?
“We have a lot better shot to win here than we did at Indy or Richmond in those final regular season races,” Stenhouse said. “But, to me, I don’t really feel like I’m going into this race any different than I would if it was in July. I still feel like the July race is our opportunity to make it into the playoffs.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a little more dramatic with it being the final race of the regular season and it’s super nerve-racking for those three that are trying to get in on points. So, they will be tiptoeing around and making sure they get to the end, but stage points are also critical for them.
“It’ll be kind of crazy, as far as that scenario goes – that playoff bubble. And then if somebody like ourselves or somebody outside of the playoffs gets a win, I think that’s kind of the thing that’s exciting – makes it come down to the final lap in the last race of the regular season because there’s multiple people that can win and move somebody out of the playoffs.”
5. A race of his own
Mac MacLeod’s interest in motorsports comes naturally. His great-grandfather raced stock cars and was a thrill show stunt driver in Canada. MacLeod grew up in Blind River, Ontario, Canada, about six hours north of Michigan International Speedway.
He followed his love of motorsports to North Carolina. MacLeod graduated in May 2018 from Belmont Abbey College in the Charlotte suburb of Belmont, North Carolina.
He works at Front Row Motorsports, serving as the social/digital media manager and public relations manager. MacLeod works with driver Michael McDowell. MacLeod handles various media and partnership duties related to it. Before NASCAR reduced the number of team personnel at the track because of COVID-19, he was at the track most weekends. He now does the same work at home as many others in similar positions for other teams.
As the season moves closer to the end, MacLeod faces his own challenge in securing a visa to continue his work. With restructuring in visas, what MacLeod must have has changed. His current visa expires at the end of January.
It’s just an example of some of the challenges those in the sport can have as NASCAR draws people from outside the U.S., whether they are engineers, mechanics or work on the business side of the sport.
The final 10-race stretch of the regular season begins for the Cup Series Sunday at Kentucky Speedway.
After years of mostly only racing under the lights there, the series will race in the daytime.
Can Kyle Busch, who starts from the pole, earn his first Cup win of 2020?
Here’s all the info you need for Sunday’s race:
(All times are Eastern)
START: The command to start engines is at 2:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:54 p.m.
PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 2:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:35 p.m by Darrell and Stevie Waltrip. The national anthem will be performed at 2:36 p.m. by Robert Randolph.
DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.
COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25
STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.
TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 1:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.
FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 58% chance of rain at the start of the race.
For the last 12 Cup races, teams haven’t had the opportunity to practice as NASCAR navigates the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the lack of practice sessions each race weekend has turned out to be a “tremendous” help for Front Row Motorsports, according to Drew Blickensderfer.
Blickensderfer is in his second year serving as crew chief on Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 Ford. Through 16 races, both McDowell and teammate John Hunter Nemechek each have two top-10 finishes, matching the team’s best total for a season.
McDowell’s two top 10s have come in the last three races – Pocono 1 and Brickyard 400 – and both of Nemechek’s have come since NASCAR returned on May 17 – Darlington 1 and Talladega.
“Where we lack compared to some of the other teams is when they unload on Friday they’ve got a team at the shop ready to look at the information from the racetrack and help the people at the racetrack get their car better,” Blickensderfer said in a Zoom press conference. “Guys like Kyle Busch, they are the best in the world at sitting in that seat and saying, ‘I need this to be better on Sunday.’ They know what the track is gonna do. They know what they feel.
“With us getting our race cars better Michael doesn’t always know. John Hunter is a rookie, he always doesn’t know what’s gonna happen on Sunday versus Saturday. They haven’t had great race cars for years and years like some of the veteran guys have had, so I think them not knowing that and not hurting us during practice has helped a ton. We don’t have the personnel back at the shop helping us work on the cars Friday and Saturday. We load up and go to the racetrack almost everybody in this shop goes to the racetrack.
“We don’t have guys sitting back here at the shop, at least an engineering staff that’s willing to help, so no qualifying hurt, no practice, I think, has been a huge benefit and I think our tools have shown that they’re as good as anybody’s because we’ve hit that first run really well since the pandemic.”
Since NASCAR’s return, FRM’s two cars have combined to finish in the top 15 10 times, with each driver claiming five.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1), Nemechek and McDowell are 22nd and 23rd in the driver points. But in the owner points, which dictates where they start each race via random draw, Nemechek is 24th and McDowell is 25th.
In the random draw process, Nemechek can start anywhere from 13th to 24th and McDowell can start between 25th and 36th. On Sunday, Nemechek starts 22nd and McDowell rolls off 30th.
“Our cars have had more speed this year than we’ve ever had at Front Row, so that’s helped us, obviously, with performance and getting the results that we need to get,” said McDowell, who is in his third season with FRM. “But they’ve done an exceptional job unloading really close without any practice and having our cars very competitive, which is hard to do. But the downside … is we had a mechanical failure early on in the year and that hurt us in the points and then, for the most part we’ve been starting 26th, 27th, 30th, 32nd every weekend, so that’s tough.
“We’re only (six) points out of the top 24 in owner points, so it would be nice to get there. The unfortunate part is that my teammate is the next one in front of us, so we’d like to have both cars in the top 24 in owner points so that we can both start up front and I think we’re maybe 10 or 12 points back from that, so it’s not impossible but we’ve got some work to do. If we keep running how we’ve been running the last three or four weeks we should be able to get ourselves in there and not have to start so far back.”
McDowell said that Nemechek, in his rookie year, has done an “exceptional job” so far, but made sure to frame it through the lens of Nemechek benefitting from “three, four, five, six, seven years of a lot of people’s hard work, but he’s doing a good job making the most out of it and executing.”
“That’s not to take anything away from him, but John Hunter didn’t bring this speed to Front Row,” McDowell said. “Front Row was building that over years and he’s very fortunate that he’s got the opportunity this year while the cars are so good, just like I am.”
McDowell added: “Seth Barbour, his crew chief, has been with the organization for a long time and has done a great job of elevating it, alongside with Drew and Derrick Finley and a lot of people, so I think that this sport … it’s a lot about timing and his timing is really good right now to be in our cars and have them running as well as they are.”
McDowell said the two drivers have “been able to push each other … and that definitely helps, so having a teammate that’s fast and can push you is super-important, and he’s definitely done that, so it’s been good.”
Nemchek, who is making his first Cup start at Kentucky, said a lack of practice has been an “exclamation mark” on how much preparation is needed for a race.
“For myself, it’s just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much information as I can to have that experience and to be able to put everything into one basket and push forward.,” he said. “For myself, it’s been a little bit difficult. I feel like most weeks we’ve kind of shown speed right off the bat. We’ve continued to progress. Some weeks we’ve been on the struggle bus side, but, overall, from almost every week I’m kind of glad that we haven’t had practice.”
Nemechek said given the circumstances the team and sport is experiencing, “we’re still going into every weekend with no expectations. We want to run the best that we can every single week and we want to continue to push forward and run every lap. For myself, this year is about learning. It’s about taking in everything that I can and building that notebook on the experience side.”
Winners and losers after Saturday’s Cup race at Pocono
Front Row Motorsports: Michael McDowell’s eighth-place finish marked the first time the organization has posted back-to-back top-10 finishes. McDowell’s run came a week after John Hunter Nemechek was eighth at Talladega.