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Monday, December 11, 2006

NASCAR Driver Preview: David Gilliland

David Gilliland Age: 30
#38 M&M"s Ford Crew Chief: Todd Parrott
Nextel Cup Stats
Top 5's
Top 10's
Top 15's
Avg Start
Avg Finish
Driver Rating

Raise your hand if you knew who David Gilliland was before 2006? Put your hand down, liar. Prior to June 17th, very few had heard of the 30 year old from California who got his start in the Southwest Series, one of NASCAR's regional series. He started the year with a partial Busch schedule with underfunded Clay Andrews Racing. After struggling to qualify for races, Gilliland not only qualified, but started 4th at Kentucky in June. He went on to win in the biggest surprise of the year. It's possibly one of the biggest surprises in NASCAR history.

What may have been more impressive happened the following week at Sonoma. In another testament to his talent he qualified an equally underfunded #72 car for the Sonoma Cup race. It didn't garner as much attention as his Busch win, but it was an amazing feat. Consider that it was Gilliland's Nextel Cup debut on a road course and was driving against road course experts like Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Scott Pruett, P.J. Jones and Brian Simo. He qualified 31st (Simo failed to qualify) and finished two laps down in 32nd.

By August Gilliland was hired by Robert Yates Racing to replace Elliott Sadler. In less than a season, he had gone from scraping together money and attempting Busch races to a guaranteed ride in Nextel Cup. It was too unbelievable for a Disney movie.

After a rocky start filled with flat tires and several crashes, Gilliland and Parrott began to mesh. Even in the short span of fourteen races, the progress was noticeable.The first six starts his average finish was 34.8. The last eight starts had an average finish of 22.9, including two top fifteens (Talladega, Atlanta). He also ran in the top ten for the majority of the finale at Homestead before a crash.

Gilliland also showed his strength in qualifying, by starting in the top ten on three occasions. He won his first pole at Talladega in October. It was the third straight Talladega pole for the 38 car. Once the race started, Gilliland stayed out of the way and finished a season high 15th.

Yates has done a great job of surrounding Gilliland with tools to succeed. Todd Parrott is one of the best crew chiefs in the sport. He made an instant impact at Petty Enterprises last year. For all the problems RYR has had, they are still in better shape than Petty. Gilliland was a crew chief for his fatherButch, early in his career. It's a unique skill among drivers and no doubt has helped his communication with Parrott.

It was the right decision to insert Gilliland in the #38 car as soon as possible. Running for Rookie of the Year might have been nice, but it can't make up for the extra eight races Gilliland was able to run in '06. Gilliland had never raced at several of the Cup tracks, so every one of his 4,163 laps was invaluable experience. It was the same plan that accelerated Carl Edwards' path in 2004 when he debuted at the August Michigan race. Obviously Edwards entered with a dominant team, but the theory remains the same. Spending time building chemistry with Parrott puts them ahead of the rookies that take over at Daytona.

Another help in Gilliland's learning curve arrives in his new teammate, Ricky Rudd. Pairing Gilliland with a veteran, especially someone as experienced as Rudd is ideal for the young driver. Having a sounding board in Dale Jarrett and now Rudd, is a huge luxury for Gilliland and his progress. While Yates' situation looked dire this summer, they never hit rock bottom. A similar slide happened at Richard Childress Racing, resulting in significant changes. 2006 may have been that wakeup call for Yates.

The other big key to accelerating Gilliland's progress is running a part-time Busch schedule with Team Rensi Motorsports. Additional seat time, especially at unfamiliar tracks will help immensely. While Rensi isn't a Busch series power, that obvioulsy won't faze Gilliland.

Gilliland's Talladega pole qualified him for the 2007 Bud Shootout. It's a perfect way to start the season, with an exhibition race to gain more comfort. The strongest part of Yates' program is unquestionably restrictor plate races. He will certainly have a top ten car come Daytona. Yates should have a pretty good gauge on the seaon in the next three races at California, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Looking towards next year, 20-25th in the points wouldn't be out of the question. Jarrett finished 23rd last year and it seems reasonable that Gilliland can match that. Gilliland's 53.4 driver rating was very close to Jarrett's 57.4. There is no reason why Gilliland can't improve on that. His strength figures to be speedways, especially the west coast races where he has lots of experience. Bristol and Martinsville will be educational. There will be mistakes, frustrating crashes and failures, but there is also great hope for Yates and Gilliland. Four to six top ten finishes is a realistic goal. Of course Gilliland has always exceeded expectations before, so you never know.

Past Previews:
Kenny Wallace

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