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Gilliland struggles to find his place

His first full year in series has been filled with more downs than ups, including stinging criticism from Stewart.

June 24, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

SONOMA, CALIF. — During the years he toiled in NASCAR's minor leagues, David Gilliland of Riverside dreamed of racing in the Nextel Cup Series against the likes of two-time champion Tony Stewart.

Trouble is, now that Gilliland's dream has come true, he's having to race against the likes of Tony Stewart.

Gilliland's first full season in NASCAR's premier stock-car racing series has gone poorly entering today's Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Infineon Raceway, a 1.99-mile road course in Napa Valley wine country.

His year got worse a week ago when Gilliland collided with Stewart during practice at Michigan International Speedway. The outspoken Stewart publicly blamed Gilliland and implied that he needed more seasoning in NASCAR's lower-level circuits.

"I actually like the kid," Stewart, 36, said of Gilliland, who's 31. But Stewart said, "It's hard to be on his side when you see him on the track and you see the mistakes he makes week in and week out."

Other drivers -- including veteran Ricky Rudd, Gilliland's teammate at Robert Yates Racing -- said Stewart caused the wreck and was wrong to blame Gilliland.

Stewart is "one of the best, if not the best out there," Rudd told reporters last week. "But he has a habit of running his mouth at the wrong time."

The wreck "wasn't David's fault" and the "videotape clearly shows what happened and Tony screwed up."

Rudd, who has nearly 900 starts in the series, said "David Gilliland definitely belongs in Cup racing."

Even so, the criticism stung, Gilliland said.

"[Stewart] is one of the guys I always looked forward to racing against," he said. "It got to me a little bit. But at the driver introductions before the [Michigan] race, I had at least 10 drivers come up to me and say, 'Don't worry about that. You're fine.' That made me feel really good."

Gilliland, son of West Coast racer Butch Gilliland, started racing at small California tracks such as Irwindale and Perris in NASCAR's lower ranks. He still drives in some of those races and, in fact, won the NASCAR Grand National West Series race Saturday at Infineon Raceway.

His big break came a year ago in Kentucky, when Gilliland unexpectedly won a race in NASCAR's second-tier Busch Series that included several Cup drivers. Yates Racing promptly hired Gilliland for the Cup series, and he drove the last 14 races of 2006.

He started this season by winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and finishing eighth in NASCAR's crown-jewel race.

But after 15 races, he's 32nd in points with an average finish of 27.3 and only two top-10 finishes.

He's also in a tough spot today. Gilliland qualified 35th in the 43-car field and his No. 38 Ford Fusion didn't pick up much speed in practice Saturday.

*

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson practiced here for the first time Saturday after their Chevrolets, which were parked by NASCAR on Friday for having oversized front fenders, were repaired and passed a second inspection.

Gordon, the only five-time winner of this race and its defending champion, and Johnson also must start today's race at the rear.

Their team owner, Rick Hendrick, said the infractions weren't intentional and involved "a grey area" in the rules surrounding NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which is being used here for the first time.

"The fenders on the car are sitting there in front of God and everybody" to see, Hendrick said. "We want to play by the rules."

The rear starting spots for Gordon, the current Cup series points leader, and Johnson are "a big penalty," he said. "If these two cars finish in the top-10 I'll be extremely happy."

*

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he has been pleasantly surprised at the fan support he has received since announcing two weeks ago that he'll move to Hendrick's team next year.

"When I was in Michigan [last week], the fan support was the same if not better," NASCAR's most popular driver said in an interview.

"I was really surprised," he said. "I thought they were either going to like it or not. I never thought about them being excited about what we're going to do. They say, 'Hey man, looking forward to it.' "

Earnhardt also said his main challenge at Infineon Raceway is keeping calm.

"I make a lot of mistakes here. I don't know why, I just get wild," he said.

--

james.peltz@latimes.com

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