Gilliland knows his place, and it's special


When the green flag drops at today’s big NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, most eyes will be focused, at least until the Budweiser takes effect, on the front of the field. That’s where the fast cars, the hot rods, as Rusty Wallace was fond of saying, will start.

True, they will be last season’s hot rods, or at least last season’s hot-rod drivers, as the field for the Kobalt Tools 400 was set by last year’s final points after a steady rain washed out Friday’s pole day qualifying and transformed LVMS into a giant fishing hole.

So it’ll be Brad Keselowski, the cocky reigning Cup Series champion, with Clint Bowyer alongside; followed by Jimmie Johnson, who almost always wins the big race here, and Kasey Kahne; then Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin, he of the loose lips and lighter wallet (pending appeal), and so forth.

So almost all eyes will be glued to the first few rows, because watching the cars in front of a stock car race is like watching the ball at a football game. And the rest of the eyes — especially the electric ones of the TV cameras — will be glued to the 37th position, because that’s where Danica Patrick starts.

I, on the other hand, will spend at least a few laps watching the guy who will start 31st in the No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford, because I used to watch David Gilliland’s old man, Butch Gilliland, wheel calcified Winston West cars around the LVMS Bullring long before it was bestowed with a capital “B.”

And also because somebody with David Gilliland’s team told me that last year, when Danica was making her Daytona 500 debut, Gilliland purposely drove next to her for 10 laps or more during practice, because he figured that was the best/only way for him to get on TV.

This is why I admire the middle-of-the-pack guys. Sometimes they think outside the draft.

In NASCAR, it doesn’t get any more middle of the pack than 36-year-old David Gilliland of Riverside, Calif., who last year finished 30th among the 58 drivers who collected championship points.

He is to stock car racing what William Howard Taft (22nd among the 44 chief executives in the historical rankings) is to U.S. presidents, what Eggnog or French Vanilla are to Baskin Robbins’ original 31 flavors.

(Actually, there are no Baskin Robbins rankings, because ice cream flavors are subjective. But if it rained and the 31 flavors were lined up alphabetically to start the race, Eggnog would be 15th and French Vanilla 16th. Banana Nut Fudge would start on the pole.)

To me, to others who appreciate middle infielders who hit .240 but play good defense, or bass players in rock bands, or anybody else who relentlessly plugs away in the margins for the betterment of the group, David Gilliland is much more interesting than French Vanilla ice cream or William Howard Taft (even if Taft did strengthen the Interstate Commerce Commission by advocating Dollar Diplomacy).

For starters, Gilliland was high school golf teammates with Tiger Woods. Not even Jimmie Johnson can say that.

It happened at Western High School in Anaheim, Calif., when they were sophomores.

Were they pals? Not really. Gilliland said Tiger was so focused, even then, and pretty much kept to himself. Sort of like Kurt Busch.

Gilliland was lousy in golf, but Butch Gilliland thought his son should learn to play, because a lot of potential auto racing sponsors play golf, and by the time he was 16, David Gilliland already was aspiring to become a big-time stock car racer.

And he would become one.

People forget that Butch Gilliland’s son sat on the pole at Daytona, just like Danica, in 2007. And that in 2011, when Trevor Bayne won, he finished third at Daytona, and man, oh man, wasn’t that a great result for a middle-of-the-pack team like Front Row Motorsports?

In 2006, when Gilliland was just getting started as a big-time stock car racer, he won a Busch Series race at Kentucky; he was the first non-Cup driver to win a Busch race that year, before it became the Nationwide Series.

This was a feat so grand and unexpected — that a greenhorn such as Gilliland, and his middle-of-the-pack race team, could beat all those regulars with the big sponsors — that Hermie Sadler in the broadcast booth called it “the biggest upset in Busch Series history.”

“We were a part-time, underfunded team, and basically that’s the way everything I’ve ever done in racing has been,” said Gilliland, who is starting his third season with the not-so-aptly named Front Row team.

“Our car owner (Bob Jenkins) doesn’t expect us to come out here and win with what we’ve got. If we have a 30th-place car, then a realistic goal is 25th place; if we have a 15th-place car, we’ll try for a top 10.

“But if we have a last-place car, the last thing we’re going to do is try for a top 10, because that will get you in trouble.”

So today instead of watching the guys running with the football, I think I will watch Gilliland and the other offensive linemen of NASCAR battle in the trenches. I’m going to pay more attention to the William Howard Tafts, the Martin Van Burens, the Rutherford B. Hayeses.

And should the middle of the pack become the back of the pack for the No. 38 Ford, I’ll know it’s because David Gilliland has a 30th-place car today, or because that’s where Danica is running, too, and the TV telecast is back from commercial.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.