While life as a NASCAR Cup Series rookie isn’t easy, 22-year-old Todd Gilliland of Sherrills Ford, North Carolina has taken to the task with stride and confidence.
Considering how he took to ARCA Menards West Series by storm in 2016 and 2017 at ages 16 and 17, with back-to-back, six win championship seasons, the third generation racer is no stranger to success.
However, he understands the steep mountain that he must climb in order to achieve longtime Cup success. Despite ranking 29th heading into this Sunday’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway, he’s enjoying his rookie season, by and large.
“I think the Cup car is actually a lot of fun,” Gilliland said. “I feel like you can race a little bit closer than the trucks. That’s really the only thing I have to compare to on a mile-and-a-half, and I feel like you can race closely.
“I think one thing that’s really overlooked is that you can race side-by-side really good. In every other car, we’ve seen that it’s such a side force dependent car that when you get side-by-side you often see trucks get sucked around when the air gets taken off their right side, where this car it’s not even affected side-by-side. I think that’s a super good thing.”
Even racers like Gilliland enjoy the closer competition with the new, Next Gen Cup cars. With the margin for error more razor thin than shaving a five o’clock shadow with a Gillette blade, it means drivers like Gilliland have to be at their best on each lap.
Although Gilliland recognizes an area of opportunity to improve the on-track product, the plusses outweigh a con for these distinct stock cars.
“We’re still seeing some issues in traffic following people nose-to-tail,” he offered. “But I feel like that’s gonna be a race car no matter what at the speeds we’re going, but, overall, I’ve had so much fun. The shifting is a lot of fun. The digital dash.
“Overall, in the Cup Series, there’s so much more information being fed to me as a driver. I think the Next Gen car has been a lot of fun.”
As Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra once sang in 1981, “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Gilliland realizes his dreams in Cup with respectable results like his 20th at Fontana, 19th at Phoenix, 16th at COTA, 17th at the Bristol Dirt Race, 15th at Darlington and 16th at Charlotte.
Starting this weekend at Nashville through the season finale at Phoenix in November, Gilliland and his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang team race nonstop.
Notably, the young driver spent his only off weekend of the Cup season in a one-off start for his father, Todd, in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Knoxville Raceway.
Taking the checkered flag last Saturday night, Gilliland hopes to parlay some confidence from his Truck triumph when he clambers inside his No. 38 Ford Mustang.
In the meantime, perhaps byproducts of his youth and genuine optimism, Gilliland looks forward to getting to work with the long, hot summer races awaiting him and his Cup rivals.
“I’m excited. I feel like I’ve been working hard to be ready for the summer months, so I’m excited for it,” Gilliland offered. “I think the cars are gonna be more fun when they’re sliding around a little bit. We’ve seen hotter weather. It definitely makes you slide around at least feel a little more out of the racetrack, so excited for that.”
Ultimately, Gilliland recognizes the intense work ahead of him, but he’s also approaching the next 19 races with a healthy mindset.
“The Cup Series schedule is a lot, so it’s crazy to think our next weekend off will be after Phoenix,” he said. “But, I’m excited for it and just trying to make good progress. I think that’s one really good thing, too.
“You don’t have any off weeks to maybe celebrate the good times, but if you have a bad week you know you’re going right back at it the next week, so it’s just a lot more about keeping the momentum going – good or bad.”