Significance of Cup challenge sinking in for Gilliland

Matt Thacker/Motorsport Images

Significance of Cup challenge sinking in for Gilliland

NASCAR

Significance of Cup challenge sinking in for Gilliland

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Todd Gilliland has never raced a schedule like he will this season as a NASCAR Cup Series rookie.

Gilliland, 21, comes from a world where Camping World Truck Series races are nicely spread out. There are many, many off weekends. Sometimes there is only one race a month. And the entire schedule is only 23 races.

For the past three years, Gilliland has been a Truck Series regular. With the Daytona 500, he’s been thrown into the deep end of the pool with Front Row Motorsports.

Being a Cup Series rookie is hard enough with the much longer schedule and the depth of competition. But this year, the schedule will be even more grueling for teams and drivers with 37 races in 38 weeks.

“It’s intimidating just because I don’t know what it’s really like,” Gilliland said this week. “I’m sure I can do it.”

At this, veteran teammate Michael McDowell piped up.

“You have to do it,” McDowell deadpanned. “You don’t have a choice.”

Cup Series teams kicked off the year with an exhibition race two weeks ago in Los Angeles. Sunday at Daytona kicks off 17 straight weeks of racing going into the only off weekend. Then it is a 20-week grind to the end of the season.

“Growing up, that’s what I would rather do,” Gilliland said. “I would rather race every single weekend. I’m more excited about it than anything. It’s weird — normally the trucks come to Daytona and then you have two or three weeks off. But I’m excited to be able to keep racing.”

Being in Daytona isn’t new for Gilliland; he’s driven through the tunnel for ARCA events and to compete in the Truck Series. Experiencing the length of Speedweeks as a Cup Series driver with media obligations, three practice sessions, qualifying and the Duel races, is something new. It’s a significance and intensity that Gilliland was looking forward to picking up as the week progressed.

“I was definitely happy to just get my first day here under my belt,” Gilliland said. “It’s kind of nerve-wracking with not much inventory, and you’re in the draft trying to go as fast as you can but also be really smart about it.”

Gilliland is content to build up experience in his No. 38 for now, learning the ropes from veterans like teammate McDowell (No. 34). “But the second half of the season, I would like to be competitive compared to Michael.” Nigel Kinrade/Motorsport Images

Gilliland is in a rookie class alongside Austin Cindric and Harrison Burton. All three have won races from where they graduated, but Gilliland isn’t ready to put any expectations on his first season in the Cup Series. Mainly because the Next Gen race car is as much a variable and unknown for the veterans like McDowell as it is for Gilliland.

“I would say for me, it’s just to not take myself out of learning opportunities,” Gilliland said. “I would like to be on track, making as many laps as possible this year. I definitely have a ton to learn the first half of the season, but the second half of the season, I would like to be competitive compared to Michael. The main goal is to just finish as many laps as possible this year.”

Gilliland certainly has plenty of laps ahead of him as a Cup Series driver.

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