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April 18, 2024

Todd Gilliland on superspeedway lessons from McDowell, dad with strong ‘Dega shot ahead

As the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series slate enters its second quarter this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Ford Performance is stuck in its longest dry spell to start a season since 2010 — but there’s a high chance it ends on the high banks Sunday.

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Though winless through the first nine races this year, the manufacturer’s entries at drafting tracks have been unparalleled in speed recently, collecting six of the past seven poles (and 13 of 14 front-row starting spots), 11 of 14 stage wins, 965 of 1,452 laps led and three of the past seven race wins.

The eyes then look to a particular Ford driver who’s led the most drafting track laps of any driver this year (74) and has been there at the end of the past few races down in Alabama to put together a splendid 9.67 average finish in the last three ‘Dega races.

Ford’s streak-snapper? Well, it might just be No. 38 Front Row Motorsports driver Todd Gilliland.

MORE: Full Talladega schedule | ‘Dega surprise winners

“I think there’s definitely been a tough start to the season just as far as not being able to win with the Ford yet, but we know our Dark Horse Mustangs have a lot of speed, and I definitely think they’re all-around the best cars when they show up to the superspeedways,” Gilliland told “Obviously, we still have a long ways to go in every area — as racers, we’re really never satisfied, I would say — but this weekend, we definitely feel like we should be strong.”

Of course, having speed and knowing what to do with it are two separate parts of the equation, but Gilliland has shown early in his Cup Series career that superspeedway racing and working in the draft come naturally to him. Maneuvering around drafting tracks is as much about getting to the front as it is picking up what your car is capable of within the pack itself, and as laps tick off, the game becomes a tug-of-war between learning and surviving.

Scoot through the wrecks, know what your car can do on that last lap and who your friends are and maybe, just maybe — you’ve got a shot.

“Really, these races just start from the drop of the green flag, even if it’s just semi-riding around, but you’re really just learning what your car is capable of and what everyone else is feeling out there; just trying to build a good notebook for the end of the race,” said Gilliland, currently in his third year of full-time Cup competition. ” … For me, it’s kind of about balancing expectations. It’s pretty unpredictable. You have a pretty good chance, I guess, of kind of getting caught up in a wreck, right? Whether it’s your doing, someone else’s doing. But at the same time, I definitely have a lot of high expectations that we’re gonna bring fast Ford Mustangs to the race track again, just like we started out the season really strong at Daytona and Atlanta.”

And honestly, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

todd gilliland talks to michael mcdowell
Tim Nwachukwu | Getty Images

Front Row has consistently proven to be among the most competitive teams on drafting tracks, and Gilliland has two of the more respected racers of the past decade-plus at those venues as direct resources in teammate Michael McDowell and his father, David Gilliland — a former driver for Front Row and Daytona 500 pole winner himself. They’ve both offered the younger Gilliland a bevy of advice on how to last in these races and position yourself for a strong finish.

Each mentor has contributed to Gilliland’s superspeedway acumen in unique ways.

“The advice from my dad was more kind of just early on as far as bigger picture things for superspeedway racing, but really, I feel like I have picked it up fairly easy,” said Gilliland, who has led the second-most laps for Ford in 2024. “And I really do think that’s just from watching him all those years. He always seemed to just run well at them, for whatever reason. And for me as a kid, that’s what was always super exciting — when we would go to the race track and, in my heart as a 10-year-old, I really thought he had a good chance of winning. And I’d watch those races that much more closely. And I’m sure I’ve picked up on random stuff along the way, as far as that goes.

“But I would say nowadays, for sure, Michael is probably the main point of advice whether it’s any race track, right? He’s the one driving the car right next to me, and he knows what he’s going through and can relate to what I’m going through better. But as far as superspeedways, we’ve really been working on, probably last year and a half, taking care of each other out there; as far as, if someone’s in trouble, letting them back in line, trying to stick together for the majority of the race. And it’s funny, sometimes it works out better than others, but it’s just good to have that game plan, at least. It’s hard to have anybody’s back out there, but as teammates you do cut them a break here or there.”

MORE: Michael McDowell through the years

The mentorship between Gilliland and McDowell appears to be paying off for both of them, with the 23-year-old North Carolinian rounding into form as he shakes off the rookie and sophomore newness and the grizzled veteran from Arizona keeps turning in his best seasons as he rounds the corner to his age 40 campaign. At some point — likely years down the road as McDowell continues to get stronger and stronger — it’s conceivable that the former “Great American Race” winner will toss the proverbial baton to Gilliand as Front Row continues its rapid development into a leading organization for Ford.

He’s not quite ready to take the handoff, but it’s in his purview.

“Certainly hope so. I think, you know, (becoming the leader at Front Row) is something I’m working toward, for sure. Just as far as being a better leader for myself, right? Like that’s just a life skill that McDowell, whether it’s more natural to him or he’s been doing it much longer than me, he’s definitely better at it. That’s one thing that I feel like he does really well; he gets the most out of the people around him and pushes everyone to be better. Every year he’s been here, he’s probably improved his average finish position by two or three or four spots. That’s really tough to do, and he’s continued to do it up through the mid-20s to teens to be able to become a playoff contender.

“So definitely, what he’s doing here is really special. And yeah, that’s my goal; to hopefully take over at some point. Long ways to go, obviously; he’s really solid on the race track and just a super, super solid guy off the race track. But that’s definitely my goal one day.”

The short-term goal for this weekend, though? Putting one on the board for the blue ovals.

And it’s quite possible he does.