Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Todd Gilliland Grabs 1st Top 5 in Rookie Surge at Indianapolis

Top Dog: Todd Gilliland

Todd Gilliland has had a solid rookie year, but 21 races in, it’s not always easy to see with a look at his season-long results. Despite some strong performances, Gilliland has often been a victim of circumstances that prohibited him from earning even a top-10 finish with Front Row Motorsports.

Not anymore. At the Verizon 200 held at historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 31), Gilliland not only earned his first career top 10 at the sport’s top level; he earned a fourth-place finish, just the second top five overall for FRM this year.

Gilliland’s career-best weekend started and ended with milestones. He earned his best starting position with a stout ninth-place qualifying run, but that was only the beginning.

One of the most intriguing aspects of road course racing is strategy, which has been twisted around a bit during the stage racing era. At Indy, there seemed to be three groups of drivers with varying ideas of when and how to pit. Gilliland and the No. 38 team opted to stay out at the end of stage one, earning him five stage points with a sixth-place result.

That forced Gilliland to start deep in the field for stage two, which resulted in him running 26th at the stage two break. But as strategy worked its way through, the No. 38 Ford was climbing the pylon.

Through the first two stages, several drivers looked as if they were performing Monster Jam donuts, as driver after driver took 360-degree spins. However, the only yellows were for stage breaks as drivers were able to recover from their crashes. When the first yellow for cause fell with just over 20 laps remaining, Gilliland was scored in the 18th position.

On the restart, the 22-year-old rookie drove up inside the top 10 with 17 laps to go, improving to ninth when a caution was displayed for debris from Christopher Bell’s car with five laps left.

That is where the firestorm on the track began to hit.

The second-to-last restart looked more like a demolition derby than a NASCAR race. Driver piled into driver, and Gilliland was no exception. He radioed in to the team that he felt like he “got hit on all four corners on that restart.” However, the car was able to withstand the impact.

Gilliland lined up in eighth for the final restart. A spin from Ryan Blaney ignited several small incidents, and when the dust settled, Gilliland had emerged in fifth. That is where he crossed the line, but a penalty for Ross Chastain taking the access road in turn 1 moved him into the fourth spot.

In recent years, the 2020 rookie class of Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Bell stands out as the gold standard for its overall success. However, the 2022 rookie class has been fun to watch, as each driver appears to have a good relationship with one another. Plus, they all represent the Blue Oval banner for Ford.

It wound up being a rookie stampede inside the top five. Austin Cindric matched where he started, finishing in the runner-up position. Harrison Burton also earned his first career Cup top five and just his second top 10, running third for the Wood Brothers. That left Gilliland to round out the trio in a strong display of future stars of the sport.

Gilliland’s teammate Michael McDowell has rightfully earned a reputation as being a strong road course racer. He, too made his presence known, finishing inside the top 10. But on this day, the rookie outdueled him in what was overall one of the strongest races for FRM in 2022. It is the first time both FRM drivers earned a top 10 in the same race since the fall event at Talladega Superspeedway way back in 2013.

See also
Harrison Burton, Todd Gilliland Surge to Career-Best Cup Finishes in Frantic Ending at Indianapolis

Underdog Highlights

Joining Gilliland in the top 10 was AJ Allmendinger. This track is clearly special for the Los Gatos, Calif. native. Last year, Allmendinger earned Kaulig Racing its first Cup win at the Indy road course. The day prior to the Verizon 200, he drove to a hard-earned victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, expressing the same excitement that has won many fans over. But to defend at the Brickyard was no tall task, especially in the Next Gen car.

While running inside the top 10 in stage two, Allmendinger ran off track but was able to recover with no flat tires. The No. 16 team opted to short pit in both stages as they had no desire to play the points game since Allmendinger is not full time.

With Shark Week and Sharkfest occurring this month, Allmendinger surely felt like “Jaws” coming up through the field. When green-flag stops settled and the field restarted with 18 laps to go following a caution, Allmendinger was sitting in fifth.

The No. 16 Gold Fish Casino Slots Chevrolet drove up to fourth before the debris caution flew. A chaotic restart culminated in Allmendinger setting himself up on the front row following the final caution of the race. It would be a duel between the defending Brickyard champion and the Cup Series’ most recent road course winner in Tyler Reddick.

Reddick got a good jump on the restart, bringing Ryan Blaney with him. Blaney was bumped by Daniel Suarez in turn 1, putting him squarely in Allmendinger’s path in turn 2. The No. 12 spun, costing Allmendinger several spots and ultimately leaving him seventh.

While he certainly would have liked the win, that may have been the least of his concerns as Allmendinger’s cool suit failed early in the race. Add to the fact he ran out of water on a hot day, and the Dinger had nothing left in him when he climbed out of the car. The 40-year-old literally fell into the pit wall in exhaustion before being treated and released from the infield care center.

See also
AJ Allmendinger Battles Dehydration, Finishes 7th at Indy Road Course

McDowell’s week did not start off on a good note. Following last week’s race at Pocono Raceway, the No. 34 team was found to have a modified single-source part. NASCAR issued a L2 penalty, resulting in 100 driver and owner points lost, a four-week suspension and $100,000 fine for crew chief Blake Harris, and a loss 0f 10 playoff points should McDowell win his way in. The team is currently running through the appeals process.

Penalty or not, the goal is simple for McDowell: win. No stress having to point your way in or having to crack the top 30; he just needs to win. That may be easier said than done, but Indianapolis was one of three strong opportunities for McDowell to cash in based on his road racing success. While unable to achieve that, he did earn an eighth-place finish in the end. That boosts McDowell’s previously attained career-high single-season top-10 total to nine.

The rest of the top 20 included underdogs with up-and-down races. Erik Jones rebounded from a spin on the second-to-last restart to finish in the 15th position. Jones announced a long-awaited contract extension with Petty GMS Motorsports this past weekend.

Ty Gibbs made his second career start in place of Kurt Busch in the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing. While it was nothing flashy, Gibbs once again reached his goal to run all the laps and it resulted in besting last week’s Pocono tally by one spot in 17th.

Both Corey LaJoie and Justin Haley overcame spins to finish inside the top 20. After being tagged in the final stage, LaJoie recovered to finish 18th. Haley was turned on the very first lap, forcing him to pit and putting him one lap down. After getting back on the lead lap, Haley had to drive through the grass on the restart with 18 laps to go in an evasive maneuver. Still, he was able to salvage a respectable 19th-place showing.

Ty Dillon’s string of bad luck continued when he became the first caution for cause on lap 61. Kyle Larson appeared to lose his brakes entering turn 1, jumping the curb and violently blindsiding an innocent bystander in Dillon. Larson quickly ran to check on the Petty GMS driver, who has now suffered three DNFs in the last four races.

Former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat made his Cup debut with Team Hezeberg in the No. 26 Toyota. Kyvat made 110 career F1 starts, scoring three podium finishes. Unfortunately, his Cup debut ended early with suspension issues after losing power.

Underdogs Sound Off

Todd Gilliland (fourth): “It’s just really exciting. This rookie season has been really tough. The Cup Series is hard. I’ve learned that. It’s easy to give up and that’s one thing, too. You have confidence when you come to the Cup Series, but you get beat down quick. Even just having a ninth-place qualifying effort and just to run up front the first stage. We stayed out and got stage points and kind of had to come from the back again, but that’s what me and my crew chief were talking about.

“That’s really our best weekend start to finish by far, so hopefully that’s just something to build on. For me, that’s a lot of confidence. Road course racing is tough, too. I’ve always loved it, but it hasn’t really loved me so much this year, especially the first time here at Indianapolis. That’s really cool.”

AJ Allmendinger (seventh)

Erik Jones (15th): “We struggled today with our FOCUSfactor Chevy. Road courses have definitely been an area where we need to work and we thought we’d be a little better this weekend. Just didn’t qualify well, started at the back and fought the handling most of the race. The guys stayed after it, we used the car up and salvaged a 15th-place finish. We’ll take it and move on to Michigan. I think we’ll have a good race next weekend and I’m looking forward to going home and racing in front of family and friends.”

Ty Dillon (34th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

With this being the last race of July (2022 is going by way too fast), it is never too late to bring out the red, white and blue colors. Live Fast Motorsports did just that while also bringing Josh Williams back in the No. 78 Alloy Employer Services Ford Mustang. Williams’ car featured an eagle carrying the stars and stripes on the side of the car. In his second career Cup start, Williams matched his first with a respectable 25th-place result.

NASCAR RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: INDIANAPOLIS

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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Echo

Look at the top 10 finishers. Other than Reddick, the rest of them just lucked into where they finished on that crapshoot restart. Bubba did better than Gilliland, he went from 19th to 9th by driving in the grass for a whole corner. Most of the good drivers were already knocked out early. It came down to who built the best tank.

Dale EarnHog

Todd led laps early, Bubba was running top 5 and top 10 for a good majority of the race, Cindric was up front for a bit, Allmendinger and Mcdowell ran solid early on….. aside from guys like Custer and Buescher(who somehow finished p10 after being on fire) about half of the guys up there had been up front at some point. no clue how Harrison and Custer finished that high, even with the big cluster on the restart. Cole has been driving worse than Danica and Harrison has been nonexistent all year.

Bill B

Yep. I think NASCAR’s new game plan is to rely on the crapshoot nature of certain tracks to make the races interesting. The problem with that is that if they go to far, the who sport starts to look less like a sport and more like reality television.

Dale EarnHog

*The 2020 rookie class of Bell and Reddick stand out as the standard of success.
Aside from his KY win in 2020, Custer’s rookie year was awful. I believe would’ve been around 25th in points without it. Reddick deserved ROTY that year imo.
2021 was terrible, and this year at certain points in the race he got outdriven at Pocono by…. Corey Lajoie and Ty Gibbs who was lagging back and making his first career start.

Gene, please give the boot to Cole. He’s a great kid but he’s not a Cup Series talent. Get the #00 back for him and let him channel his inner Buckshot Jones.

Would love to see Zane SMith brought through the Ford pipeline to SHR. Kid’s gonna be a Cup star.

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