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From first to last to redemption

Gilliland pays price for a pit accident but nearly has a chance to win before finishing eighth. It's a lesson learned for the unlikely pole-sitter.

February 19, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — In a sport that has cars driving in circles, it's probably no surprise to find that few things in stock car racing unfold in a linear fashion.

Take David Gilliland's eventful Daytona 500 debut, for example. He started first, then slipped to last -- a pit accident cost him a lap -- then got the lap back and climbed into the top five.

And when the race came down to a white-green-checkered restart with two laps left, there was Gilliland with a chance to become the first driver since Lee Petty in the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 to win it in his first start.

"I thought we had it," said Gilliland, who had to contend with a last-lap multi-car accident and finished eighth. "It's a long race. And you know that going into it. It was looking real long after we got into that trouble in the pits.

"To come back is pretty good. You've just got to take it as it comes."

What the Riverside driver will take most from Sunday's experience isn't perseverance. He needed that in spades just to make the race, surviving more than a decade of driving on regional tracks from Perris to Irwindale before finally getting his big break in NASCAR's second-tier Busch Series a year ago.

No, what he learned Sunday is that ... well, he learned that he's learning.

"That's what I keep saying, and that's how I feel," the boyish-looking Gilliland said as he stood outside his hauler, fielding congratulatory cellphone calls from home. "I'm getting better each week. And as long as we keep doing that, we're going in the right direction."

If Gilliland, 30, was nervous before his Daytona debut, he didn't show it. Minutes before the command for the drivers to start their engines, he sat on the concrete pit-road wall with his wife, Michelle, 3-year-old daughter, Taylor, and father, Butch, a former NASCAR Grand National regional champion.

But after the national anthem ended, he gave Michelle a kiss and a long hug and went to work, starting on the pole and leading for 18 laps before the first caution flag came out. And he was still running near the front when he tangled with Robby Gordon coming out of his pit stall during the second caution more than a third of the way into the race.

After that, he quickly fell to last. But with 30 laps to go he came charging back, going from 31st to 12th in less than 50 miles. His luck ran out after the final restart, and he ended the race trying to avoid the last-lap melee.

"I kind of was defensive,'' he said. "I was trying to block the inside and the outside, and [eventual winner Kevin Harvick] got a run on me. Then the guys started wrecking in front of me. So stuff happens."

And though that stuff didn't happen exactly the way he would have liked, Gilliland wasn't complaining. Especially since he'll be taking the education and the momentum home to California for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at California Speedway.

"I figured it was going to be intense," he said. "It's serious business out there. It's our biggest race of the year, and everybody wants to win.

"We'll take it. A good top-10 finish. This was a big step in the right direction."

Times staff writer Jim Peltz contributed to this report.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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