Sports is all about developing the concept of the underdog. Every year, the George Masons, Lance Armstrongs, and the Florida Marlins of the world dazzle us with their ability to succeed in the face of adversity, even when the gentlest of critics find no choice but to flee the crime scene and leave them for dead.
Sunday, all those critics were back to cleanse their souls and apologize, calmly shaking the hand of an excited young man named David Gilliland.
“I’ve been pinching myself for the last eight months and I’m not going to stop anytime soon,” said the 30-year-old, shortly after stunning the audience of millions by winning the pole for the 49th Annual Great American Race. A driver who has yet to crack the top 10 in a Nextel Cup race calmly went out and laid waste to the competition, taking home the top spot by nearly two-tenths of a second over teammate Ricky Rudd. That’s just 15 hours, of course, after he guided the No. 38 to within one car and one solid push of winning the Bud Shootout. Hmm, exactly what you’d expect from someone who’s smacked the wall in over half the races he’s entered in his Cup career. Luckily for Gilliland, the beauty of unpredictability took center stage.
“What are the odds of that?” said Gilliland about winning the pole in his first attempt at Daytona.
100-1, to be exact; but David, why don’t we try the odds of you BEING in a Cup car as of this time last year? Those odds don’t even register on anyone’s scale. 12 months ago, the West Coast driver was preparing for a limited Busch Series schedule for an underfunded team that has since folded. No one would have imagined, least of whom David himself, that a roller-coaster year highlighted by an upset Busch win in Kentucky would lead to him capturing a car once driven by legends named Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, and Dale Jarrett.
But Gilliland is here, and suddenly, the timing is right. That Kentucky win made him a rising star, and Robert Yates came calling with a tremendous opportunity, one no driver would have ever turned down. Of course, inexperience reared its ugly head; no underdog can become one without encountering problems, and Gilliland’s recent past is littered with mistakes. With just a pair of 15ths on his Nextel Cup resume, it’s no surprise no one had this guy at the top of their lists come Pole Day. Of course, not many people were paying much attention to the Robert Yates organization recently other than writing them off; with sponsor UPS and veteran Jarrett leaving for Toyota, there was some question as to whether Yates would even field a second team at all. With Gilliland clearly in need of a veteran to give him the training wheels needed to ride his Nextel Cup bicycle to success, things were clearly in a downward spiral.
In, of course, stepped Rudd and sponsor Mars, at the last minute coming together to put Rudd in the No. 88 car and ending the driver’s self-imposed retirement. Just like that, the past was the past. The underdog label was there, but the potential became immeasurable.
“How about Ricky?” Gilliland gushed on Sunday. “He’s been a great teammate. When I came to Yates, some people questioned the decision, but they’ve really tried to build their organization and help build their team around me, and bringing in guys like Ricky Rudd to help me. We’ve really been helping each other, and I think today being on the front row just shows how closely and how good these teams are working together right now.”
“He keeps talking about me helping him, but I tell you, I’m learning a lot from HIM,” responded teammate Ricky Rudd. “He’s a pretty darn good chassis guy himself.”
That good-natured exchange was a sign of the chemistry the two drivers have quickly developed, chemistry that’s been missing from this Robert Yates organization for a long time. Over the closing laps of the Shootout, with Gilliland stalking Tony Stewart and anxiously attempting a shot at his first win, there was a calming voice on the radio throughout, letting him know exactly what to do and reassuring his confidence.
That voice, of course, was Rudd.
“You’ve got to remember, this guy came here to test never seeing the speedway,” continued Rudd. “He was lost. He couldn’t find his way to the tunnel, and that was a month ago, and now he comes here and sits on the pole.”
Rudd is right; no question about it, Gilliland has come a long way in just the past two months. Now, he’s got just seven days to learn how to etch his name next to some of the greatest upsets of all time. Taking home the 500 trophy is a tall order; in the past few years, Yates’ cars have been notorious for being fast in qualifying but slow during the race at restrictor-plate tracks, and with just half-a-season of Nextel Cup under his belt, there’s no question Gilliland will have his hands full.
The best part is, this kid’s so excited he doesn’t know what pressure is. And that’s what will make him so dangerous this Sunday.