David Gilliland can relate to what's happened to Trevor Bayne, how a single shocking, completely unexpected NASCAR victory can propel you to instant stardom. Gilliland has been there, too. His triumph in the Nationwide race at Kentucky in 2006 (a race I covered for NASCAR Scene) took him from obscurity to a full-time Sprint Cup job two months later.
"I know what Trevor is going through," Gilliland said. "It's a whirlwind."
It may seem like a stretch to compare the impact of a Nationwide victory to Bayne's in the Daytona 500, but in that season it was David slaying a field of Goliaths. Cup teams and their drivers had invaded the second-tier series in force and had won the 15 previous races. They usually took the vast majority of the top 10 positions. They were called the Buschwhackers, a takeoff on the longtime sponsor of the series. Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Regan Smith and David Reutimann were among the Cup drivers in the field at Kentucky.
Gilliland and Clay Andrews Racing were making their fifth start in their first Nationwide season. They were a one-car team who did their own engines and didn't have a major sponsor. They were nobodies, field fillers.
It wasn't just that Gilliland won that night; it was how he did it. He started fourth and ran near the front. Crew chief Bill Wilburn had decided on a two-stop strategy, four tires on each, in the 200-lap, 300-mile race. Gilliland didn't get track position by staying out and hitting the cautions at the right time. The two-stop strategy took Gilliland from the front to mid-pack twice and he drove back up through the field. Gilliland took the lead with 11 laps to go. J.J. Yeley and Hamlin, both driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, were second and third. Harvick was sixth.
The victory catapulted Gilliland into the spotlight. NASCAR put him on a national teleconference the next week and the media gobbled up the story. More importantly, Cup team owners started calling Gilliland the next week. He became the hottest free agent in NASCAR.
When Elliott Sadler departed Robert Yates Racing in early August, Gilliland was hired to replace him. Gilliland, born and raised in Southern California, had vaulted from NASCAR's Grand National West Series to Cup in less than a year, arriving without the benefit of even a full Nationwide season.
Gilliland can tell Bayne that fame is fleeting, that good results are hard to achieve in Cup. RYR, once a championship-winning organization, had slipped into decline with an aging Dale Jarrett and Sadler.
In his four-plus seasons, Gilliland has bounced around with underfunded teams -- full seasons in 2007 and 2008 with RYR and its successor Doug Yates Racing; a partial season with four teams in 2009; and a 32-race season with Bob Jenkins' Front Row Motorsports in 2010.
Gilliland's third place in the Daytona 500 on Sunday was his third top five finish in 151 career starts and a performance he regards as his finest in Cup and second best of his NASCAR career.
"Without the first [Nationwide] win, I wouldn't be here to win third," Gilliland said. "I finished second at Infineon [in 2008], I think this tops that. It's Daytona. It's an awesome deal. Everybody has worked hard at Front Row this winter to get our stuff more competitive. Nobody was happy with last year."
Jenkins self-sponsors Front Row Motorsports through Taco Bell (on Gilliland's No. 34) and Long John Silver's (on teammate Travis Kvapil's No. 38) franchises, and he recently upgraded their Ford cars and engines from a year ago.
"He bought cars from Richard Petty Motorsports," Gilliland said. "It was the stuff they raced last year and much better than what we had. We stepped up our motor program with the new FR-9 from Roush-Yates. It's really elevated our performance, 10 steps ahead of where we were on the competition side, and given us the ability to do what we did at Daytona."
Gilliland started 39th, survived the crashes, including missing Kurt Busch's Dodge by inches, and twice drove to the front. In between, Gilliland was patient, trying to stay out of trouble.
"With about 14 laps to go, we said, 'OK, we're going to start going,' and steadily moved our way to the front," said Gilliland.
He lined up seventh, on the inside behind Kurt Busch, for the second and final green-white-checkered finish. He hooked up with Carl Edwards, also in a Ford, on the white flag lap and went into it sixth. They moved up to third and fourth down the back straight, passing Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt Busch. Entering turn three, Bobby Labonte went a car-width high and Edwards and Gilliland went past. Bayne also went a little bit off the inside line, but was able to bring his Ford back down to block Edwards.
Third was a promising beginning to the season for Gilliland and Front Row. He believes there are more good results to come working with crew chief Peter Sospenzo for the entire season.
"We did a bunch of switching around last year trying to keep three cars in the top 35 in points, but this year I'm in the 34 with Peter and it's a good combination," Gilliland said. "I think it's going to show throughout the year.
"My prediction is we're going to be the most improved team in NASCAR this season. I told people that at the media day [before Daytona 500]. It's not enough for the budgets we're racing against, but we're not too far off. With Bob Jenkins, I'm proud of what we're building."
Gilliland has been characterized by some as a one-race wonder, from that career-making win at Kentucky in Nationwide. But he's managed to stay employed in Cup for 5 1/2 seasons, a testament to his talent. With a third at Daytona and an improved situation at Front Row, Gilliland has a chance to establish himself beyond journeyman status in 2011 and move toward fulfilling the promise that got him there. If he's lucky, Trevor Bayne might do the same.