Just last week on Nov. 30, Todd Gilliland had what he considers to be one of his career highlights. That’s when Front Row Motorsports announced him as the new full-time driver of the No. 38 Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series for the 2022 season.
Gilliland knew he’d be making the jump to Cup approximately two weeks before his plans were formally announced. Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, told him nonchalantly that he’d be making the jump to Cup.
Just that casual mention, though, surely made for a day he’ll never forget.
“[Freeze] walked up and grabbed my shoulder and said, ‘I think we’re stuck with you in the 38 car next year,’” Gilliland recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait, for real? I’m going to be in the Cup car?’ I really didn’t know what to think.”
For a while, Gilliland thought he would be returning to the Camping World Truck Series for a third season with Front Row, coming off a seventh-place finish in the championship standings this past year, a campaign that included a victory at Circuit of The Americas. If that was the case, he says he would have been content with that decision.
With no agent, Gilliland relies heavily on his father, David, for advice. Many of his plans run through David to see what’s the best fit.
And the Gilliland family has a history with Front Row. Not only does David’s Truck Series team, David Gilliland Racing, have an alliance with the reigning Daytona 500-winning team, but he competed with FRM at the Cup level from 2010 through 2015. He made two additional starts with the team in 2016.
But even David wasn’t sure if his son would be running in Cup or Trucks.
“It had a 10% chance, then 20%, then back to 5%,” David said of Todd’s chances of moving to the Cup Series next season with FRM. “It’s been a roller coaster of what we were going to do. It’s such a moving target with guys that do have rides in the Cup Series and ones that don’t.
“It was an emotional roller coaster. Even up until a couple weeks ago, it was not 100%. In this business, until it’s done, it’s not done.”
David Gilliland said that the plans would shift on a weekly basis: One week it looked like Todd would be moving up, another week it didn’t. The result is Todd will run his first full Cup season after making 93 career Truck Series starts. In that span, he earned a pair of victories, including his first with Front Row in mid-May. This past year, he had a career season, finishing tied with series champion Ben Rhodes and title contender John Hunter Nemechek for the most top 10s in the series with 16.
Front Row never made a Truck Series start before the 2020 season. It took Gilliland in after two yo-yo type years at Kyle Busch Motorsports. He’s just thankful the team took a chance on him two years ago.
“For them to believe in me as much as they did to start the team was mind-blowing to me,” Todd said. “You have to put yourself in their shoes: I felt like I could do it, but for them to do that was huge for me. And it showed me that they had a lot of faith in me.”
That came after two years of Todd being in the spotlight, running for one of the series’ Goliaths at KBM. The results weren’t ideal, finishing 10th and 11th in points. Sure, he picked up his first series win at Martinsville Speedway in late 2019, but that came after a season of pressure, when team owner Kyle Busch would bluntly evaluate his team for the public to hear.
Todd pushed through and hit reset at Front Row. In addition, he gained worthwhile knowledge that he can carry throughout his career.
“I learned so much valuable information when I got there,” he said. “That’s the stuff you can’t forget. Sometimes, you don’t get second chances, but I feel like you’re always better prepared after any situation. I had a big learning curve going into those two years.”
From David’s perspective, it was tough seeing his son go through that backlash. But he believes Todd became a better driver, maturing both on and off the track.
“It definitely pushed him,” David said of Todd’s time at KBM. “I think he could have very easily quit and said, ‘This isn’t for me. The media is bashing me and they’re jumping on Kyle’s bandwagon of wanting to bash me, talk down to us.’ But he didn’t. He kept his head up and used it as fuel to drive him and channel that energy to want to be better and work out harder, restart better and do all the things it takes to be a better race car driver.”
Because of the grind and his work ethic, Todd found himself looking at a ton of data, which includes graphs to see where he can make up time on and off pit road and getting into the pit box. Doing the small things correctly adds up, which was part of his development as a race car driver.
And while Todd is just 21 years old, David believes his son is ready for the big time. After all, he’s been racing competitively since the age of 5 and grew up at the race track.
“I have no idea if I am or not because there’s a lot to learn,” Todd said about his Cup Series readiness. “I have guys that believe in me at Front Row Motorsports that are giving me the chance for this year and hopefully a long time in the future that we can build together. I think they do know that it’s going to be a little bit of a process; they’ve had rookie drivers there before the last couple of years and you can see the huge learning curve.
“I think the biggest thing is being patient. Certainly, I feel confident in my ability and that, with four years in the Truck Series, that package is close to the wide-open racing we see in the Cup Series.”
David, who made a respectable career running for Front Row and other teams, didn’t start racing until he was 18. With Todd’s experience alone, his dad believes he already has him covered.
“The good thing is nobody has a lot of experience in the [Next Gen],” David said. “I think the more experience he can gain and learn in that, the better off it is. If they were running the old car, I think it would be a much bigger step than it is with the new car coming out.”
Knowing the transition will be a steep one, Michael McDowell, driver of the other Front Row car, believes Todd’s knowledge of being around the sport his entire life will be valuable. It could make the difference in how competitive he is, compared to how other rookies have fared in recent years at FRM.
“We know it’s going to be a growing year and going to be a challenge for him,” McDowell said during a Champion’s Week availability last week in Nashville. “But at least we’ll have practice and have the opportunity where I can help him. I think my experience with new, rookie teammates is John Hunter, out of all those guys, probably did the best. And one of the key aspects to that was he grew up in the sport. He was born and raised going to the race track. He’s seen it, watched it, experienced it, and Todd is exactly the same in that aspect.
“When you’re around it 24 hours per day, seven days a week, you just know more: situational, experience. Even though he doesn’t have laps, he has watched and been on the pit box, on the hauler and seen more than most of us have seen.”
Todd’s first time strapping into a Cup Series car will be at the Next Gen test scheduled next week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His primary objective for his rookie season is to complete as many laps as possible and keep his equipment in one piece.