2006 Ride(s): No. 72 Dutch Quality Stone Dodge (Infineon), No. 38 M&M’s Ford (Michigan (Aug.) – Homestead)
2006 Owner(s): Bryan Mullet (No. 72)/Robert Yates (No. 38)
Crew Chief: Todd Parrott (No. 38)
Stats: 15 races, zero wins, zero top fives, zero top 10s, 42nd in points.
High Point: Gilliland’s high point actually wasn’t Nextel Cup related; it occurred in June at the Busch Series race at Kentucky Speedway, when the part-time participant became the first of only two non-Nextel Cup regulars to win a Busch race in 2006. The unlikely victory by Gilliland suddenly put him on the fast track to future success, as numerous Nextel Cup owners began courting him to drive their cars. At first, Gilliland made his Cup debut at Infineon in a car owned by Bryan Mullet, finishing 32nd in a Chevrolet that had failed to qualify for any of the previous races it attempted. That was all Robert Yates needed to see; after an extended courtship, the 30-year-old rookie officially replaced the departing Elliott Sadler in August, driving the last 14 races of the season in RYR’s No. 38 M&M’s Ford.
Low Point: For Gilliland, simply driving on the Nextel Cup level was a fairy tale in itself, but that isn’t to say he didn’t take his share of hard knocks during the season. His first start for RYR at Michigan International Speedway ended in a 38th-place finish after a tire failure sent his M&M’s Ford into the wall; he went on to crash in each of the first five races he entered for the team. While he only had one official DNF during the season, a shortened rookie year included eight finishes of 32nd or worse in just a handful of starts at the Cup level.
Summary: Despite some rough performances, Gilliland showed steady improvement during his short stint as a Nextel Cup driver. He won the Bud Pole at the fall race at Talladega and finished 15th in that race, adding top-20 performances in Atlanta and Phoenix during the latter part of the season. Running in the top five at Homestead until a late wreck, the solid performance to close the season was indicative of how far the inexperienced rookie had come in a short time behind the wheel.
2007 Outlook: Gilliland will continue to gain valuable seat time and familiarize himself with the various Cup venues. His ultimate success, however, will be dependent on the team he drives for. Until Robert Yates settles the multitude problems within his own organization that festered throughout 2006, the ability to provide Gilliland with competitive racecars will be consistently questioned.
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