Gilliland faces new challenges
By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
FONTANA, Calif. ” David Gilliland has one of those classic good news-bad news situations.
After two full seasons in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, and spending most of that time with Yates Racing and in the top 35 in car owner points, Gilliland now finds himself with a new brand new Cup team and having to qualify for races on speed.
Yates Racing told Gilliland in January, but they made his departure official earlier this week, sending out a release that said a lack of sponsorship on the team’s No. 38 Ford led to the driver’s departure.
“David did a great job for us and is a gifted driver,” Doug Yates said. “We are sorry to lose him, but it is important for David to continue driving and sponsorship is very tough this year.”
Gilliland, who has two top-fives and four top-10s in 87 Cup starts, found work with the new TRG Motorsports team headed by Kevin Buckler. But not until after Mike Wallace fell just short of putting the team in the Daytona 500.
One of 12 drivers vying for eight starting spots here, Gilliland qualified 32nd for Sunday’s Auto Club.
“I’m a little nervous coming back,” the 33-year-old Gilliland said Saturday. “I always have a few nerves. I haven’t been out of the top 34 for a while. It’s nerve-racking. During qualifying, you think one slip or pushing too hard could make you go home.”
Buckler, who also fields a Camping World Series truck and a car in the ARCA series, only has sponsorship lined up for the first five Cup races of 2009. But he said TRG has hired Gilliland and veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe to help build the team a full-time Cup program.
“David has the most experience in the COT car of any driver available,” Buckler said. “Slugger gives us a lot of experience working with the COT car. We were short a few pieces at Daytona, but I believe we have put the right people together to have a successful weekend in California.”
But Buckler is focused well beyond this weekend’s Auto Club 500.
“We are pulling out all of the stops to make the next (three) races,” Buckler said. “We want to be in the top 35 in owner points by the time we finish Bristol. … The water is deep in NASCAR and we are not afraid to dive in.”
with the sharks, but we have a very steep learning curve ahead of us and we will do our best.
“We took a big hit a Daytona by not making the race, but we have taken that and turned it into determination. Everyone involved sees the upside and wants to keep our foot firmly planted on the accelerator to turn this into a full season.”
BIG CHANCE: Jeff Gordon believes the reeling economy could offer an unusual opportunity for success to some of the new teams getting involved in NASCAR.
The reason: NASCAR’s 2-year-old Car of Tomorrow.
The CoT has standardized the cars, taking away a lot of the tweaks and gimmicks that the big budget teams were able to use to put some distance between themselves and the have-nots.
“With this car, there has never been a better opportunity for teams with less funding, maybe less personnel, to be able to pull off some spectacular finishes and maybe even a win,” Gordon said.
But, even with NASCAR banning testing at sanctioned tracks, Gordon acknowledges the top team still have a big advantage.
“While the economy has affected some of the teams further down in the field, the teams that were strong last year have only gotten stronger and, in that sense, it’s only going to be more competitive toward the front of the field,” the four-time Cup champion said.
“I think you’re actually going to see it tighter and faster and more competitive at the front of the field.”
IN CHARGE: Kevin Harvick says owning a NASCAR team that fields a car in the Nationwide Series and two trucks in the Camping World Series has helped his preparation as a driver.
The co-owner of Kevin Harvick Inc. with wife DeLana and driver for Richard Childress Racing, Harvick is off to a solid start in 2009, winning the non-points Budweiser Shootout and finishing second in the Daytona 500.
“I think the ownership side of it has definitely helped understand the sport better,” he said. “It has helped my relationship with Richard, just understanding where he is coming from on a lot of different things and really knowing how much things cost to make things go around.
“Respecting what you have, as far as equipment and things like that, it kind of puts it all in perspective for you. I think it has made me a more well-rounded person. It has made me a better driver and I think it has come with a lot of learning experiences. I think, for the most part, it has made everything better.”
QUICK FIX: It only took about two minutes for Reed Sorenson to find trouble in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice session.
Driving for Richard Petty Motorsports, Sorenson’s No. 43 Dodge suddenly veered to the right and hit the wall hard.
“Something broke in the right front and it took a hard right turn,” said Sorenson, coming off a ninth-place finish at Daytona. “Hopefully, the backup car will be good.”
It took his crew less than an hour to get the backup car off the team hauler and onto the track, giving Sorenson about 45 precious minutes of track time.
“It feels pretty darn good,” Sorenson told crew chief Mike Shiplett after the first few laps. He wound up 39th among the 43 cars that took part in the practice.
Sorenson qualified 17th, but will have to start from the rear of the field after moving to the backup car.