The Frontstretch: West Series points leader, David Gilliland, looking forward to Busch Series debut at Phoenix by Nikki Krone -- Monday April 18, 2005

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When the Busch Series visits Phoenix International Raceway on Friday, there will be a new player on the scene, when West Series driver David Gilliland makes his series debut. Gilliland, the 2004 Grand National Division, West Series Rookie of the Year and current points leader, is looking forward to running with NASCAR’s top drivers.

The 29 year old, Torrance, California native is making his Series’ debut at Phoenix, a track he not only familiar with, but a place where he’s visited victory lane. That win came in the first race of the season, back in January, with Gilliland behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet.

If Gilliland qualifies his No. 54 Honda Cars of Corona Chevrolet for Friday night’s Bashas’ Supermarkets 200, it will be his first Busch start, but this is not his first foray into the series. Last year, in the Busch Series season finale at Homestead, Gilliland got the call to qualify Robby Gordon’s No. 55 Fruit of the Loom Chevrolet, while Gordon ran his off-road truck in the Baja 1000. Not only did Gilliland help get Gordon into the show, but he solidly qualified the car in the eighth spot, impressing many and giving Gilliland a much needed confidence boost.

“I was actually doing the “Gong Show” deal with Roush, and we were testing at Darlington when I got a phone call from Robby Gordon,” said Gilliland. “He asked me to qualify his car for him in Miami and I had never driven a Busch car, never really even drove on radial tires, and also had never driven on that track. So I was excited, but a little bit nervous.

“On Tuesday, I heard that I didn’t get the deal with Roush so I was kind of disappointed,” continued Gilliland. “Then we went to Miami and qualified eighth, and it was a really big confidence booster for myself and reassured me that I can do it and I can run with those guys.”

When Gilliland takes to the track, he will have some advantages on his side, including his Hendrick built car. Gilliland’s West Series’ team receives occasional support from Hendrick Motorsport, due to their car owner, Mark Golembski’s friendship with Rick Hendrick. Gilliland knows how lucky he is.

“It’s good to have their support and to have them behind us,” he said. “It’s a resource that you can’t buy, and we’re really lucky to have it.”

He will also have the benefit of an experienced crew chief, and one that he has worked with briefly in the past. Frank Kerr, Shane Hmiel’s NEXTEL Cup crew chief, will be the head of Gilliland’s crew (his regular West Series team) as they work on and pit the Busch car. Kerr was also the crew chief on Gordon’s Busch team in 2004, when Gilliland practiced and qualified his car.

“I was really comfortable with him,” said Gilliland, “and I’m really looking forward to working with him again. I feel it’s really going to help our team and hopefully make this weekend go a little bit smoother and a little better.”

Gilliland definitely has a full plate this weekend. Not only will he be racing in Friday’s Busch Series race, but he will also be competing in the West Series event at Phoenix on Thursday evening.

“It’s going to be a busy, busy couple of days for us but we are definitely looking forward to it,” said Gilliland. “I’m very excited about racing under the lights for the inaugural time in the West Series car and then again in the Busch Series car.

“The West (cars) and the Busch (cars) are very, very similar,” he continued, “so I’m hoping that running the race on Thursday will help to better our performance on Friday night.”

So far this season, Gilliland has been extremely impressive in the West Series. After opening the West Series season up with the pole and the victory in January, Gilliland’s momentum held over to the next race, at Bakersfield.

When the series hit Bakersfield two weeks ago, Gilliland was again in the thick of things, starting fifth and battling in the lead. Unfortunately, he fell one spot short in the end and finished second, but not only kept the points lead, he also maintains his momentum.

“We couldn’t ask to start the year out better,” said Gilliland. “It’s really given our team a lot of confidence and a lot of hope going into this year.”

Running along with Gilliland and his fellow West Series drivers when they raced at Phoenix back in January were NEXTEL Cup regulars Kevin Harvick and Ken Schrader. For Gilliland, they were welcomed competitors that make all of the teams step it up.

“They definitely have a lot more resources than us,” said Gilliland, “and it just gives our team an extra boost of confidence. It gives me confidence as a driver to know that we can go in and race with those guys week after week.

“I like it when they come in because it pushes us and our team to the next level. Being able to run with those guys just makes us a stronger team and makes us able to run harder week-in and week-out, and really takes our team to the next level. That’s what we’re doing it for.”

Gilliland has definitely been up on the wheel this season, but he believes the whole team deserves a lot of credit for their recent success.

“Everybody has been together for a full year now and I think everybody’s working well together,” said Gilliland. “We work really hard at getting the right people and I think chemistry is everything. We finally have it and everybody is there for the right reason.”

Gilliland began his racing career by hanging on the fence, watching his father compete. He began working for his dad, first as a mechanic and later as a crew chief, helping his dad earn the 1997 West Series championship. It was shortly thereafter that he decided he wanted to experience racing from the driver’s seat.

He does believe that his time on top of the pit box has greatly helped him now behind the wheel, as it helps him to better understand the cars and cuts down the guessing time between himself and his crew chief.

Gilliland hopes that this is just the first of several Busch races this season, although he does not know when, where or how many more times he will compete in. A lot of that depends on how successful he is at Phoenix.

“Realistically, I’d like to qualify and finish in the top 20,” said Gilliland. “For our first time, I think that would be a realistic goal which I think would be easily attainable.”

But that’s his goal for Friday’s Busch race. His goals for his career are bigger.

“Our goal for the short-term is to win the West Series Championship. In the long term, I’d like to move up into Busch Series or NEXTEL Cup and be able to race in the upper Divisions, and keep moving up.”

The first step to accomplishing his goals will take place at 4:30 EST on Friday, when the Busch Series drivers attempt to qualify for the Bashas’ Supermarkets 200. Qualfying will be shown live on Speed. The race will be run later that evening, beginning at 9:30 ET on FX.

But first, he will have to compete against the best of the West Series in the Casino Arizona 150 at the Phoenix International Raceway on Thursday, April 21st.

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