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Gilliland takes command late to win Truck Series’ inaugural race at COTA

Todd Gilliland was so fast and so determined out front in Saturday’s Toyota Tundra 225 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race his own team had to remind him to slow down and take care of his tires in the closing laps of the series’ debut at the Circuit of The Americas (COTA) race.

Despite receiving the cautionary advice, Gilliland, 21, did not ease off and raced to a hefty 7.941-second margin of victory to earn his second career series win and first since 2019. His No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford set the fastest lap of the race with two laps remaining.

RELATED: Truck race results | Full COTA schedule

“I definitely did a lot of stuff wrong but that’s what I love about road course racing, there’s 20 turns here, 20 opportunities to pass but also make mistakes,’’ Gilliland said, thanking his Front Row Motorsports team.

“Last year we didn’t quite have the season we knew we could and just to come out here and win early, we’ve been building momentum and for my team to get this win is just amazing.’’

Gilliland and the rest of the field ran wet tires flag-to-flag, so his team kept reminding him to be careful and look for wet spots on the track since the rain stopped mid-race. He hit his marks on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn circuit, and he hit the puddled water just enough to carry on to the victory — leading the final six laps and earning an extra $50,000 incentive in the second race of the series’ Triple Truck Challenge.

RELATED: See the winners of the Triple Truck Challenge

Kaz Grala finished runner-up, followed by pole-winner Tyler Ankrum, Grant Enfinger and Sheldon Creed, who led a race-best 14 of the 41 laps.

Seventeen-year-old driver Sam Mayer, rookie Carson Hocevar, Zane Smith, Austin Hill and Ben Rhodes rounded out the top 10. Championship points leader John Hunter Nemechek finished 12th.

Gilliland won Stage 1 and was first out during the ensuing pit stops during that caution period. But NASCAR ruled one of his pit crew members was over the wall too soon and Gilliland was penalized — sent to the rear of the field on the restart.

With Gilliland now forced to play catch-up, defending series champion Sheldon Creed led most of Stage 2, pitting just before it ended and allowing Ben Rhodes to instead take his first stage win of the year.

Creed and Ankrum battled one another up front — at one point passing each other three different times on one lap — before Gilliland — who methodically worked his way forward was able to take the lead for good with five laps remaining. Grala passed Ankrum with two laps remaining to tie his best ever series finish.

The victory marks Gilliland’s fourth top-10 showing in the last five races and as he told his team on the victory lap, “I know we can do this (win races) a lot.’’

Gilliland becomes the fourth full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver to win this season — joining two-race winners John Hunter Nemechek and Rhodes, and last week’s winner Creed.

The series races Friday night in the North Carolina Education Lottery 200 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), which is the final race of the Triple Truck Challenge.

Notes: The No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford cleared post-race inspection and Gilliland was confirmed as the winner. … Ankrum won the Cometic Gasket Pole Award. … Tanner Gray (engine change), Ryan Truex (engine change), Lawless Allen (transmission change), Austin Wayne Self (unapproved adjustments) and Chase Purdy (unapproved adjustments) were all sent to the rear of the field before green flag.  … The race started under wet conditions, requiring all teams to begin on their wet-weather Goodyear tires.