On a cold, wet, dreary afternoon, the last thing you would expect to see was David Gilliland loose. After all, with qualifying already delayed, the threat of cancellation loomed – and with it would go the fourth-year driver’s first chance of making the field in a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Instead, he spent the delay relaxing in his hauler, with a Camping World West race on in the background and staying focused on calming the nerves with the opportunity of a lifetime hanging in the balance. In the end, there was no need to worry; the forecast changed and the track dried, giving Gilliland a chance to squeak into the field in 14th. But there’s still a real challenge that lies ahead as he begins his three-race stint behind the wheel of the No. 02 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota, a chance for the California native to prove his worth in top-tier equipment for the first time in his career.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he reassured me as I wondered how his demeanor was as laid back as I’ve ever seen him. “I was telling my wife the other day, ‘This is exactly the best case scenario of what you could ask for, [no better] opportunity.’”
“It’s exciting, really exciting for me – especially at the point where I’m at in my career. They’ve built new cars, and we have as good as, if not better [cars] than everybody else to do these races.”
Getting back on a level playing field is simply a dramatic change for the 33-year-old, who’s spent this season taking whatever rides he can get after being released from his ride at Yates Racing. Most of his work this year has come behind the wheel of TRG Motorsports, who’s impressed with limited funding and just 10 full-time crew members but has struggled to simply go the full distance, starting and parking several times in order to remain afloat. It hasn’t been ideal, but in a NASCAR world with more drivers than rides at the moment one does what they have to do to survive.
“We have done a whole lot over there with very, very, very little,” Gilliland exclaims, whose best finish this season, a 15th, came with the No. 71 in Las Vegas that March. “We’ve had times where we’ve gone to the racetrack to start-and-park and had an easy top-10 if not top-five car. And Dover, both times at Dover we were [top 10 in] all the practices, qualifying and everything, and to pull off and not be able to race….”
He trails off, knowing the landscape in Cup today is far different than when he burst onto the NASCAR scene. Back in 2006, he won a Nationwide Series race in Kentucky, overcoming the odds despite running a limited schedule with an underdog team that didn’t have a full-time sponsor. Proving he belonged in the top levels of stock car racing, no one has done so much with so little in NASCAR’s top-three divisions since.
But such a scenario is all but impossible to happen in 2009. According to Gilliland, there’s a reason for the underdog’s downward spiral that’s left him in a tougher spot the second time around – the cost of doing business, especially in Sprint Cup.
“It costs so much money,” he explained. “The Cup level is really tough. Just cost-wise on the motors, I think it’s $60,000 more to race the race than to just start-and-park with the motor alone.”
That leaves the odds stacked against him more than ever before, leaving him taking anything and everything thrown his way while looking forward to this three-race deal put together way back in the Spring. On weeks off from TRG, he’s driven for all four manufacturers and a handful of other teams as a super sub, even getting a headstart on this ride last week by filling in for an ailing Kyle Busch.
“I thought they were kidding,” was his initial response when asked to fill in driving the No. 18 Toyota at California. “I thought, surely he’ll be feeling better [by Sunday].”
“But then they came up Sunday morning and said Kyle’s still sick. So we went and looked at the car… I didn’t know the switches, I didn’t know any of that stuff. The belts were a little different than mine, and I’ve never gotten in the car with the helmet and everything on.”
“You look at it as a great opportunity to go out and try to run good… but you don’t really know what you got. You didn’t get to practice the car… we didn’t tear it up, we finished, had some good pit stops.”
Once again, that positive attitude shined through as Gilliland continued to make the most of what became a mediocre 24th-place finish.
“For me, it was really good because all year, we’ve lost positions on pit road,” he said. “Because our pit crew is a rented pit crew, and we just don’t really know. So you start thinking, is some of it me, getting on to pit road, not getting on as good, or the way I’m getting into my box, that stuff kind of goes through your mind.”
“But we gained spots every pit stop on pit road, so that gives me a lot of confidence coming in here that, hey, with a good well-practiced pit crew we’re good in that area.”
With Gibbs offering a support system sorely needed, now the lone question is whether the confidence can translate behind the wheel. Treating the rest of the season like an open audition, the pending free agent knows that nothing is guaranteed beyond the end of November.
“I’m not 100% sure that’s an option,” Gilliland said of the possibility of remaining with JGR for 2010. “They’ve been real clear about not running a fourth car full-time. There’s a possibility of some part-time stuff. It’s something where you just got to sit back and look and kind of make a decision. Is a part-time deal with Joe Gibbs Racing better than a full-time deal somewhere else?”
“I’m fortunate enough to be talking to some people about next year, so hopefully we’ll be able to make a choice. There’s a lot of people that aren’t in that situation. Going out and running good in these three races will make that choice a little bit easier, too.”
But to do that, Gilliland knows he needs to take the weekend one step at a time. He knows a top-15 run could turn into a 43rd-place finish with one wrong move on the first lap.
“You just gotta put everything in perspective,” he said. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You can’t do it in this sport.”
“The minute you get ahead of yourself in this sport, you’ll end up getting run over.”