Driving for an underfunded race team mired in the slow rebuilding process, David Gilliland has found that strong runs are hard to come by.
But on a road course he’s raced before, Gilliland found himself running with the leaders and showcasing the potential Yates Racing has after three-plus years of struggles. The California native finished a career-best second Sunday at Infineon Raceway – the team’s best result since Dale Jarrett won at Talladega in 2006.
“From where we were last year to these 16 races (this year) … I mean, it’s 180 degrees from where it was, and I think it still has the potential to get better,” Gilliland said. “I feel like our performance has improved 90 percent from what it was last year.”
Quietly and methodically, Gilliland and teammate Travis Kvapil have pumped life back into a once-proud race team that seemed on the verge of collapse this time last year. Jarrett and Elliott Sadler had long fled the team, and the big-budget sponsors followed.
Team founder Robert Yates reached when he raced to sign Gilliland, who skyrocketed onto the map with an out-of-nowhere win in the 2006 Nationwide Series race at Kentucky. When Sadler jumped the sinking ship in the middle of that season, Gilliland officially had a Cup ride.
It wasn’t exactly a competitive ride, though, and Gilliland slogged through seven finishes of 32nd or worse in his 14 starts with the team that year.
“You don’t really learn anything driving a car that shouldn’t even be on the race track,” he said Sunday.
Last season wasn’t much better. Yates lured Ricky Rudd out of retirement, but needed a charitable gesture from candy giant Mars to field both his cars. Although the year started with promise – Gilliland and Rudd used Yates horsepower to sweep the front row in the season-opening Daytona 500 – they combined for just three top 10s all year.
Gilliland finished 28th in the points, Rudd was 33rd and Yates was in desperate need of help. Ford brokered him a partnership in August with Paul Newman’s then-Champ Car team, but the whole deal seemed suspect.
The suspicions were confirmed about a month later when Yates hastily announced his retirement from racing. He was handing the team over to son Doug, who formed an alliance with mighty Roush Fenway Racing. With Rudd headed back into retirement, Roush moved Kvapil into that seat and sent general manager Max Jones to run the team as a co-owner.
Yates relocated from Mooresville, N.C., into Roush’s sprawling Concord complex in a move that many view not as an alliance but actually a merger. Roush, who must comply with NASCAR’s four-cars-only limit by the end of 2009, has been accused by rival car owners of circumventing the car cap by creating what is essentially a sevencar team.
Regardless, the Yates branch needed a lot of work to undo the damage created when the growing sport so quickly passed them by.
By chipping away at it, Gilliland and Kvapil have combined for five top 10s this season. Kvapil is 18th in the points with a revolving door of temporary sponsorship and Gilliland is 21st with limited help from freecreditreport.com.
Both are higher in the standings then big-budgeted drivers Kurt Busch, Casey Mears and even Sadler, who has only notched six top 10s since leaving Yates with 14 races left in the 2006 season.
Gilliland showed Sunday that his team can indeed run up front, and maybe even challenge for wins.
Granted, his showing came at a familiar place. The California native won in the NASCAR West Series race at Infineon last year and the NASCAR Southwest Series in 2004. He made his Cup Series debut on the road course in 2006.
And he’d been to the track dozens of times as a child, watching his father Butch race in what is now known as the Camping World West series. Gilliland served as his father’s crew chief when Butch won that series title in 1997.
“My dad has won here four times, and the first time I ever road raced I came here,” said Gilliland. “I had never road raced or nothing, and I qualified fourth. We broke a transmission then, but I just always came here with the attitude that if my dad could do it, I guess I can do it. I’ve never really taken any lessons on road racing. I’m just kind of at home here. It’s been good. It’s been a great race track for us.”
So good that Gilliland was praised by four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who finished third and had a front-row seat to watch Gilliland’s closing laps and his bid to catch eventual winner Kyle Busch.
“There at the end, he was definitely impressive,” said Gordon, a five-time Infineon winner. “He was good on the restarts. He would get in there, and I thought he was going to have something for Kyle there at the end. I think actually if all the (track cleaner) hadn’t been on the racetrack, he might have.
“But David really impressed me. I was happy for him.”
Now Gilliland needs to build some momentum as he and Kvapil continue their efforts to make Yates a legitimate contender. Both cars still need sponsorship, and runs such as the one Sunday at Sonoma – Kvapil started 41st and finished 22nd – could help.
“We’re in a sponsor search right now for a full-time deal, so hopefully this will help. We’re just excited about it,” Gilliland said. “This should help us build some momentum. We’re going to use this; we’re going to build this up.
“I’m just really proud, most of all, of Yates Racing and where we’ve come as a team – Travis and I both – in the six months from where we ended the year last year. Yates Racing is definitely coming back, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”