Editor’s Note: This column originally ran June 23rd, 2006. Like what you’ve read? Join Cami every Tuesday during the season as she breaks down the peaks and valleys of select Nextel Cup drivers with her column Who’s Hot…Who’s Not.
Sometimes thinking of a topic for this column is as hard as getting going in the morning without a jolt of caffeine. So as I watched the truck race last Saturday afternoon, I was cheering for Johnny Benson as he battled for his first Craftsman Truck Series victory. Not only because he is a good guy and became the 17th driver to win in all three of NASCAR’s top series, but because it would make a good Second Fiddle topic, much better than another Mark Martin win. Then, the column Gods smiled on me later that night with the biggest Busch story of the year so far.
In the first 15 races of the 2006 Busch Series season, the Cup drivers have dominated everything from the headlines, to the points race, to Victory Lane. Fans started to wonder if we would ever see a Busch only driver win a race this year. Surely a driver like Paul Menard, Kenny Wallace or another veteran would be able to beat the big boys at least once this season. However, in the end it was little known David Gilliland, driving part-time for an underfunded, brand new team that broke through and won to lead the Busch boys on their best night of the year in Kentucky.
Of course it’s been Gilliland’s story of David vs. Goliath that has made all of the headlines, and rightfully so. Lost in the celebration was the fact it was the best top 10 showing of Busch only drivers in 2006. For the first time this year, they took the majority of the top-10 positions, with Mike Wallace (fourth), Ashton Lewis Jr. (fifth), David Reutimann (eighth), Menard (ninth) and Stephen Leicht (10th) leading the way. Only twice this year (Daytona and Nashville) have Busch regulars and Buschwhackers split the top 10; in fact, Busch only drivers have been shut out of the top 10 completely on two occasions (California and Las Vegas).
I know some Buschwhacker apologists will mention that there were only eight Cup drivers in the field Saturday night, instead of the usual average of 14, but that does not diminish the impact of Gilliland’s victory and the strong showing by the Busch regulars in Kentucky.
His win was not only a victory for the little guy running the Busch Series on a shoestring budget just trying to keep his head about water, or even the larger Busch-only teams. It was a victory for a driver who put it all on the line to realize his dream and a couple of talented castoffs from the Cup series.
At 30 years old, Gilliland left the security of racing in the West in smaller series that he dominated to move south to North Carolina to try his luck in NASCAR. He landed with Clay Andrews Racing, an unsponsored team running a limited schedule. In his six attempts prior to Kentucky, he failed to qualify twice and his career best finish was 29th; of course, that lasted until he passed JJ Yeley with 10 laps to go Saturday night.
In Gilliland’s corner are two veterans with plenty of Cup experience, and you could see the pride on their face as their young driver took the checkers. Crew chief Billy Wilburn has spent years in the Cup garage and was once the head wrench for Rusty Wallace. Gilliland’s “coach” is former driver Jerry Nadeau, who has been sidelined from racing since his near fatal wreck at Richmond in 2003. Between the two they are guiding Gilliland both on and off the track, and from the looks of things, they are doing a fine job.
Next up for Gilliland is Sunday’s race at Sonoma where he will try to make his first career Cup start for another upstart team. Most people think the underdog doesn’t stand a chance on Sunday, but they said that in Kentucky, too, and look how that turned out.