Daytona 500: Gilliland in NASCAR spotlight

GILLILAND CAPTURES SPOTLIGHT IN HIS FIRST WEEKEND AT DAYTONA Second-generation West Coast driver enjoying the ride from the West Series to Nextel Cup DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 14, 2007) -- David Gilliland is not intimidated about being a...

Second-generation West Coast driver enjoying the ride from the West Series to Nextel Cup

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 14, 2007) -- David Gilliland is not intimidated about being a newcomer to the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series. In his first weekend of racing at Daytona International Speedway, the 31-year-old driver from Southern California captured the Bud Pole for the Daytona 500 and registered a runner-up finish in the Budweiser Shootout.

It marks another chapter in a storybook rise through the NASCAR ranks for Gilliland, who has gone from racing in NASCAR's regional level to its premier series in just over a year.

Gilliland first gained national exposure by winning the prestigious year-end NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in 2005, following a successful NASCAR West Series season. He vaulted further up the ladder last year when he won a NASCAR Busch Series race while driving a limited schedule for a start-up team.

For Gilliland, competing at Daytona has been a lifelong dream.

"Growing up, racing in NASCAR late models, it's something you dream of doing," he said. "Just pulling into the race track for the first time and seeing the Daytona name on the wall is something I'll never forget. To be able to go race out there and learn the draft and the track, the great history behind the track, it was incredible. I definitely had butterflies going into the start of the race."

It's been a quick ascent lately for Gilliland, whose racing extends back 10 years to the grassroots level of NASCAR.

His early success came when he served as the crew chief for his father, Butch; who won the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series championship in 1997.

Although the younger Gilliland started about a dozen West Series races between 1997 and 2002, it was not until 2004 that he found the opportunity to run full-time as a serious contender in the series. While searching for that first shot in the West Series, Gilliland honed his skills as a competitor on the dirt oval at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway and as a regular in the highly-competitive NASCAR-sanctioned Super Late Model class at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway.

Bob DeFazio, Irwindale Speedway President and COO, watched Gilliland race at the state-of-the-art ½-mile track between 1999 and 2001. He was also on hand in Daytona last weekend to see Gilliland's thrilling finish in the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night and his pole-winning qualifying run on Sunday.

"This is where the future star's of NASCAR come from," DeFazio said. "We're proud to say he comes from Irwindale. It's a testament to the NASCAR system and how it works."

Gilliland graduated to the NASCAR Elite Division, Southwest Series in 2002. He demonstrated his potential by scoring five wins with MRG Motorsports the following year. That led to a move by the team to the West Series in 2004, where Gilliland captured the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.

"We knew that David had the potential to be a contender, if he was given the opportunity," West Series director Mike Verlatti said. "He knew how to set up his race car and take care of it as a driver. That often put him in a position to challenge for the win."

Gilliland followed his rookie campaign with another successful year in the West Series in 2005, capping off the season by winning the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown. That victory led to an opportunity to drive for Clay Andrews Racing, as the team ventured into a limited schedule in the NASCAR Busch Series in 2006. In a season in which NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers were dominating the competition, Gilliland grabbed headlines by winning at Kentucky in June.

That success landed him the ride in the No. 38 M&Ms Ford for Robert Yates Racing in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series late last season. Gilliland took advantage of the situation, gaining valuable seat time and winning a Bud Pole at Talladega, while making 14 starts with RYR.

Even as he's been impressed by Daytona, Gilliland has been careful not to be intimidated by all the excitement.

"You can't be," Gilliland said. "If you go back and look where Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon came from. They all started somewhere and they all worked their way up to get here. My dad tells me this all the time, 'They all put their pants on the same way, one leg at a time.' You've just got to remember that and go in there, not over confident, but with confidence that there's a reason why you're here. You've got to remember you're here for a reason."

Now as he heads into his first full season of competition in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, Gilliland is looking to build on that experience in the Daytona 500.

"Sunday we're looking for a good solid finish, to build some momentum to carry us through the first part of our season," Gilliland said. "We want to get off to a good start. We've got a strong car. With M&Ms behind us and Robert Yates Racing, I think as a team and as a whole we're much, much, much further ahead than we were when I got here.

"So, I'm excited. You know if we're in position to go for the win, we'll certainly do that. The main thing is a good solid finish. A top 10 would be great."

A top-10 finish in his first Daytona 500 would certainly provide another chapter to Gilliland's storybook rise through the NASCAR ranks from his local track in Irwindale, Calif., to Daytona Beach, Fla.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , David Gilliland , Robert Yates , Mark Martin
Teams Yates Racing