|SOURCE: Brock Beard, LASTCAR.info|
The finish was Gilliland’s first of the 2015 season and his first in a Cup race since last year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, 40 races ago. The finish occurred in Gilliland’s 310th series start.
2015 marks Gilliland’s sixth consecutive season driving for Bob Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports, a team which in that time had grown from a struggling single-car operation to a three-car team. Though Gilliland has still yet to visit victory lane, he has continued to surprise at several races, most notably at Talladega in 2013 when he pushed teammate David Ragan to the win for the team’s first 1-2 finish. Gilliland’s best finish this year also came on the restrictor-plate tracks when he finished 11th in the Daytona 500. However, consistency has been a challenge this year- a crash last week at Michigan left Gilliland a season-worst 42nd, dropping him to 28th in points.
Gilliland had reason to be excited that Sonoma was the next race on the schedule. The track was the scene of his Cup debut in 2006, when his upset victory in the XFINTY Series race at Kentucky secured him ride in Bryan Mullet’s #72 Dutch Quality Stone Dodge. Gilliland finished 32nd that day, avoiding several multi-car pileups, and just two years later earned a career-best finish of 2nd to Kyle Busch in one of the final top-five finishes earned by Yates Racing. In nine previous starts, he had finished no worse than 32nd and had scored a pair of Top-20 finishes: a 12th in 2011 and a 19th in 2010. He’d also scored two K&N Pro Series West victories at the track in 2007 and 2012.
Gilliland was one of 44 cars who arrived to attempt to make Sunday’s 43-car field. In the opening practice on Friday, he turned in the 19th-fastest time, then moved to 16th-best in Happy Hour that afternoon. In qualifying, he timed in just 28th at an average speed of 94.841 mph, but timed in ahead of both teammates Cole Whitt in 29th and road racer Justin Marks, making a one-off in FRM’s #34, in 35th. Missing the race was the unsponsored Premium Motorsports #62 of Brendan Gaughan, ending the Truck Series veteran’s bid for his first Cup start at Sonoma since 2004.
Prior to the race, I had a chance to talk with Michael McDowell, who rolled off 23rd in the #95 K-LOVE Ford for Leavine Family Racing. I asked about how his weekend had gone so far:
MCDOWELL: “Weekend’s been good, practices have been good, we were fast. Yesterday in qualifying didn’t go great, the caution came out when we were on a pretty good lap and so we weren’t able to finish it, so that’s unfortunate. But I feel pretty good. The K-LOVE car’s been fast - I feel like we’ve been in the Top 10-15 most of the weekend and we should be able to get back there. So, it’s a long day though, there’s a lot of attrition in this race and you’ve gotta be smart. There’s also a certain element like a Bristol or Martinsville where you can get caught up in someone else’s mess, too. So we’re gonna go hard and have fun and see what happens.”
On Sunday, the 43rd starting spot belonged to Jeb Burton, making his Sonoma debut in the #26 Maxim Fantasy Sports Toyota for BK Racing. Burton was joined at the start by two drivers who fell to the rear for engine changes - Paul Menard in the #27 Richmond / Menards Chevrolet and the #46 Bene-fit Chevrolet of Michael Annett. Annett had struggled tremendously in his second Sonoma weekend, having lost a transmission in practice before the engine let go. When the green flag fell, Burton was already running 43rd in Turn 12, but on the next lap he was passed by the #7 Golden Corral Chevrolet of Alex Bowman. Burton retook 43rd on Lap 4, and by Lap 6 the entire Bottom Five had started to lose touch with the field. At that time, the four cars in front of Burton were 42nd place Annett, 41st-place Landon Cassill, the defending last-place finisher in an unsponsored #40 Hillman Racing Chevrolet, 40th-place Bowman and 39th-place Josh Wise, his #98 back in the Dogecoin Digital Currency colors for the first time since Talladega last fall.
On Lap 7, Burton began to fight Annett for the 42nd spot, diving into Turn 11 and locking the brakes before falling back again on the exit. Burton succeeded the next time by, but by then he, Annett, and Cassill had fallen back even further from Bowman and Wise. The next change for last occurred on Lap 10, when Jamie McMurray’s #1 Cessna / Beechcraft Chevrolet picked up a vibration for a blistered tire and made an unscheduled stop. He rejoined the track about four seconds behind Annett, but made up the distance in 4 laps to pass Annett for 42nd in Turn 11. By then, Paul Menard had also made an early stop and rejoined the race 43rd, though still on the lead lap. More early pit stops jumbled the Bottom Five on Lap 17 when Bowman followed Denny Hamlin to pit road, putting Bowman to the last spot. On Lap 21, Bowman was still running last when trouble found Gilliland.
Running mid-pack at the time, Gilliland was exiting the Esses when a left-front tire let go entering Turn 10. In a wreck similar to both Scott Pruett’s in 2000 and David Reutimann’s in 2008, Gilliland’s Ford couldn’t slow down fast enough and plowed head-on into the tire barriers, forcing the first caution of the day. Gilliland did not appear hurt in the accident, and after the ambulance arrived, he was brought back to the track’s medical center for evaluation. Watching from the media center, I thought I’d seen Gilliland with damage to the right side of his car and he’d smoked his brakes going into Turn 11. I asked if these had anything to do with the wreck:
GILLILAND: “No, we didn’t make contact with anybody. I just passed the 9 car (Hornish) and felt like the tire was down. We were gonna come in and change it and it blew out right there, so just unfortunate. . . There was no vibration, it just blew all at once.”
Regardless, Gilliland was pleased there were enough tires in the corner to reduce the effect of the impact and he says he looks forward to running here again next year:
GILLILAND: “It’s a big wreck, a big hit, but I’m okay. This is a great race track, we love racing out here, had some great finishes out here, so I’ll have to wait until next year and try again.”
After the interview, I watched as crew chief Donnie Wingo and the team helped unload the wrecked #38 from the flatbed. The team wasn’t in a rush to make repairs as the left-front wheel was shoved back against the firewall, and over time the team began to load up their hauler. Theirs was the first to leave minutes after the checkered flag. Gilliland now sits 29th in points heading to Daytona, where last year he started on the pole.
On my way to the media center, the caution flew once again on Lap 30 for a wreck in the Esses. This time, the victim of the tire barriers was 2nd-place point man and 2013 winner Martin Truex, Jr., whose #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet had tangled with the #55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota of David Ragan. I turned around and headed back to the medical center, where this time twice as many media members appeared to interview Truex.
TRUEX: “We got wrecked, bottom line. You know, definitely tough day. I felt like we had a decent car all weekend, we were a little off that first run and made some adjustments, felt like it helped, just when you start around 20th on those restarts it’s just a recipe for disaster, so I was trying to be aggressive, made some moves, had a couple cars passed, then the lane jammed up and the guys I passed come back behind me and you just get frustrated, you lose patience, and I got into the 55 (Ragan)’s door a little bit in Turn 7 and I guess he didn’t like it, so he figured he’d dump me. So, he’s probably got one coming, but other than that, it’s just part of the restart deal and I hate that I got my guys’ car torn up.”
I asked Truex if crew chief Cole Pearn and the guys could get the car back on track, but he said “No, it’s over.”
Heading back to the media center once more, however, it was clear the Furniture Row Racing team wasn’t finished yet. With team owner Barney Visser watching from behind, no less than ten crew members including Pearn were cutting away the front valence and welding the frame back together. An oil drum outside the stall was stuffed with tattered bits of fiberglass that, moments later, was revealed to be just about everything forward of the firewall. Incredibly, on Lap 70, the crew brought Truex’s helmet back to the garage area. Truex climbed in and rolled back onto the track for at least two laps. However, despite the team’s best efforts, the car apparently couldn’t handle very well, and it pulled off the track for good after it had completed 31 laps, leaving Truex 42nd.
I was in the garage area again the instant Truex had pulled onto the track, joined by polesitter A.J. Allmendinger whose #47 Kingsford / Bush’s Beans / Scott Products Chevrolet had a fuel system issue ten laps earlier. At that moment, the caution fell a third time for another single car wreck coming out of Turn 10, this one involving the #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota of J.J. Yeley. In a wreck similar to Richard Petty’s at Sonoma in 1990, Yeley lost control exiting the corner and hit the barrier near the old timing and scoring building near the entrance to Turn 11. Yeley managed to drive his machine onto pit road, where he made the left turn at the far end of pit road to go behind the wall.
I arrived at the small overflow garage near the Goodyear headquarters to see Yeley’s #23 on jack stands, the crew pondering the severe damage to the right-front of the machine. Yeley was exhausted, sitting in the shade against the building. Still, he was kind enough to talk to me about the accident.
YELEY: “No, I’m fine. I’m just disappointed. I was going into (Turn) 10 and got loose, got the left-rear into the marbles and at that point I was just trying to pedal it and keep the thing going and once I dropped the left sides into the dirt, the thing just went sideways. I was gonna correct it and I gassed it hoping to spin it and kind of keep it going down the race track and unfortunately it spun across and hit the inside concrete blocks and it just did a lot of damage. Just disappointed, we were kind of stuck behind the 18 (Kyle Busch), we had tires and trying to give him the respect of being where he was, it took me a lot of time and a lot of laps to get by him and I just got in a hurry trying to make up time.”
As I left, Yeley’s crew put the #23 on rollers and pulled it backwards toward the hauler, out of the race in 41st spot.
Once again, another multi-car accident brought out another caution, and I took another detour back to the medical center. This time, two ambulances rolled up with Carl Edwards and David Ragan, who locked wheels and stuffed their machines into the tires in the Esses. Again, both drivers were unhurt, and surprisingly, neither seemed very irritated with each other. Edwards in particular looked like he just hated to have the race end early as he was having fun out there.
EDWARDS: “My left-rear hit his right-rear, pretty small contact, and it just bounced the both of us sideways and ruined our day, so probably my fault. But this is frustrating, I love this race track, and I was having fun, and just wanted to be out there racing. It’s tough to have to sit out.”
RAGAN: “Carl and I were just racing hard for a spot, we both had good Toyota Camrys and we had good tires and a very fast Aaron’s Dream Machine and I just can’t lay over on these restarts. Sometimes when you’re - I don’t even think I was being aggressive, I was just holding my own, we were racing for a spot, Carl got on the rumble strips and we just touched. I mean, Carl and I are really, really good friends and certainly no hard feelings there. Just one of those things.”
Ragan also fielded questions about the Truex wreck:
RAGAN: “With Martin, he just flat out door-slammed me and completely ran me off the race track. I had all four tires in the gravel, and again I’m just trying to blend back on the race track and he was right there. So, Martin just made a mistake and he paid the price for it.”
In the end, Kyle Busch, last in the previous Cup race at Michigan, rebounded to claim his first victory of the 2015 season, and is now set to challenge for a spot in the Chase. Another feel-good story on the day was that of Fontana last-placer Sam Hornish, Jr. On Sunday, Hornish made his first Cup start at Sonoma since 2010, timed in 3rd in the late stages of the opening practice, and finished a strong 10th in the #9 Jacob Companies Ford. In three previous starts at the track, Hornish had finished no better than 31st.
Walking through the garage one final time, I met with Jeb Burton, who after starting last came home to finish 32nd in his first Cup start at Sonoma. Burton helped his team load the car onto the back of BK Racing’s #26 hauler, then spoke to me briefly about his experience:
BURTON: “We had a decent day, you know, we ran all the laps, so that was good, didn’t break anything. Just frustrated a little bit, wish we could’ve been a little bit better, but came away with a decent finish and we’ll go on to (Daytona) next week.”
|Butch Gilliland's Sonoma Car, 1999|
It was the 10th and final Cup start of Butch’s career, which included eight Sonoma starts when the event’s entry list welcomed both Cup drivers and Winston West competitors (now K&N Pro Series West). Two of Butch’s 15 K&N Pro Series West wins were in these “companion events” at Sonoma in 1994 and 1997. He also participated in all three of NASCAR’s exhibition races in Japan from 1996 through 1998 with strong finishes of 10th, 9th, and 16th, respectively.
As a curious side-note to Jeff Gordon’s final race at Sonoma, Butch Gilliland was the last driver other than Gordon to run the #24 in a Cup race. On November 1, 1992, just fourteen days before Gordon’s Cup debut in the historic Hooters 500 at Atlanta, Gilliland drove his family-owned #24 Anaheim Electric Gear Pontiac to a 29th-place finish in the Pyroil 500 at Phoenix.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #38-David Gilliland / 20 laps / crash
42) #78-Martin Truex, Jr. / 31 laps / crash
41) #23-J.J. Yeley / 71 laps / crash
40) #19-Carl Edwards / 78 laps / crash
39) #55-David Ragan / 78 laps / crash
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Landon Cassill (3)
2nd) Alex Bowman (2)
3rd) Justin Allgaier, A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joey Gase, David Gilliland, Sam Hornish, Jr., Brian Scott, J.J. Yeley (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hillman Smith Motorsports (3)
2nd) Richard Petty Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (2)
3rd) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Go FAS Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Richard Childress Racing / Circle Sport, Roush-Fenway Racing (1)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (2)