Mark Story

Mark Story: Gilliland hoping for another career boost in Kentucky

Driver David Gilliland (34) waits during qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-hour ENERGY 500 auto race, Saturday, June 11, 2011, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Driver David Gilliland (34) waits during qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-hour ENERGY 500 auto race, Saturday, June 11, 2011, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) AP

SPARTA — It's been building for five years and 19 days. When David Gilliland steps foot on the Kentucky Speedway grounds this week for the first time since scoring the greatest victory in track history — one of the more stunning upsets in the long and epic tale that is NASCAR — he expects a surge of emotion.

"I've never been back, so I expect it to be very emotional, very exciting," Gilliland said last week. "That place changed my life, man."

Until the green flag drops on Saturday's Quaker State 400 — I don't know if you've heard, but it will be the first Cup race ever at Kentucky Speedway — the most talented field of stock-car drivers ever to run in Sparta was the group that contested the 2006 race in what is now known as the Nationwide Series.

On June 18, 2006, nine full-time Cup drivers were in the field here in NASCAR's class AAA series. Included were some of the biggest names in the sport: Edwards, Harvick, Hamlin, Biffle.

Coming to Kentucky in 2006, the Cup drivers had dominated all the action in what was then known as the Busch Grand National Series. They had won the first 15 races of the year. No one in the Kentucky Speedway crowd of 72,886 had any reason to think the little-known Gilliland was any threat to stop the domination.

The Riverside, Calif., product came to Kentucky to drive an unsponsored car for the part-time team of owner Clay Andrews. In the four Busch races he had run in '06 before Sparta, Gilliland's average finish was 32.7.

Yet somehow he produced an asphalt version of Rocky.

Late in the race, Gilliland worked his way to second place, then caught a massive break when a late caution wiped out J.J. Yeley's five-second lead with only 16 laps left.

When the race went back green, Gilliland made the pass of a lifetime on Yeley for the lead with 10 laps left.

After the checkered flag waved, Carl Edwards did not head to victory circle. Neither did Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle nor any other Cup driver.

The unknown driving the unsponsored car for the part-time team claimed the winner's check of $101,300.

"I'd say it's definitely up there," Gilliland said, laughing, when asked whether that was the best single moment of his professional life. "It definitely boosted my career. It helped me get to the next level."

Before Kentucky, 2006, Gilliland had exactly no interest from any major NASCAR team wanting him to drive.

After Kentucky, 2006, Gilliland had 10 such offers. "It was crazy," Gilliland said. "My phone never rang; (then after Kentucky) it wouldn't stop ringing."

Eventually, Gilliland, who was 30 then, chose to go with Robert Yates Racing. His reasoning was basic. In a Kyle Busch world where NASCAR prodigies were getting Cup rides as teens, time was not on his side. Yates was willing to make Gilliland a Cup Series regular immediately.

In the Spielberg version, Gilliland would be returning to Kentucky five years later a full-fledged Cup Series star. The real world is a little tougher.

Dale Jarrett was driving for Robert Yates when he won the 1999 Cup Series title. Davey Allison, Ricky Rudd and Ernie Irvan also drove for Yates. But by the time Gilliland got there, the organization had fallen behind.

The Californian — a high school golf teammate of Tiger Woods at Anaheim Western High — had a couple of good moments, including winning the pole for the 1997 Daytona 500, but there was no sustained success.

In 2009, Gilliland's No. 38 team shut down for lack of funds. He bounced around until hooking up with owner Bob Jenkins' Front Row Motorsports in 2010.

In hindsight, some wonder whether, after his magical night in Sparta, Gilliland might have been better off going to a team on firmer footing than Yates' even if it would have meant starting with a full-time ride in what is now the Nationwide Series.

"I don't second-guess that," Gilliland said. "It got me to Cup, and I've pretty much been a Cup driver since. I knew Yates (Racing) was going through a transition, had had some rough times, but I wanted to get to Cup. I don't regret it."

Now 35, Gilliland comes back to Kentucky as a full-time Cup driver, but with another underfunded team. The No. 34 Taco Bell Ford stands 30th in the points.

Yet when he's had chances this season, Gilliland has shown talent. He's a threat on the restrictor-plate tracks, having finished third in the Daytona 500, ninth at Talladega and 16th last weekend in NASCAR's return to Daytona Beach.

In the road race at Infineon, Gilliland finished 12th and flat drove the wheels off his car to do it.

But in Gilliland's other 13 Cup races this year, his best finish is 22nd.

"The plate tracks and on a road course, it sort of negates the advantage the big teams have in horsepower and aero(dynamics)," Gilliland explained. "On the mile-and-a-halfs, that stuff comes into play, and we've struggled."

The oval at Kentucky Speedway is a mile-and-a-half.

By any rational standard, the guy who changed his life in Sparta has no shot to win the first Cup race here.

"Yeah, you look at it, it's probably not realistic to think we could," Gilliland said.

Of course, it wasn't realistic to think he could have won at Kentucky in 2006, either.

"It would be something," said David Gilliland, "to shock the world again, wouldn't it?"