DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Todd Gilliland heads to Bakersfield, California, on the hottest winning streak in 50 years.
Even if he doesn’t equal the all-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series mark for consecutive victories to start in the series, the 15-year-old from Sherrill’s Ford, North Carolina, is in pretty exclusive company.
It’s a club that includes two drivers in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the 2015 Daytona 500 winner and Gilliland. That’s it. In the 62-year history of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series – dating back to the West Series’ beginnings as the Pacific Coast Late Model Series – just four drivers in both the East and West have won the first two series races to start their career.
Dan Gurney. Tim Flock. Joey Logano. And the most recent addition: A third-generation driver with California roots and a North Carolina upbringing; who was 5 when the still youthful Logano made his mark.
The weight of the names are not lost on Gilliland. The teenager is well aware of his racing history, especially in the West, where his father David and grandfather Butch each won races.
“I would say my overall success has come from preparation: from my family and I, and working from where we started to be ready for an opportunity like this,” said Gilliland. “It would be such an honor to tie a record with such a motorsports legend as Dan Gurney.”
Gurney, whose résumé includes wins in NASCAR’s Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Series as well as the 24 Hours of LeMans and Formula One, holds the all-time record with four straight victories between 1963-66. Flock, who would capture two NASCAR Grand National Series championships, won his first two West starts in 1955. And Logano, who graduated from 2007 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion to Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title contender, won the first two K&N Pro starts of his career.
Gilliland surpassed Flock and Logano with his win at California’s Irwindale Speedway on March 19, and can match Gurney’s streak with a win at Kern County Raceway Park Saturday night.
- 32 times in the history of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series a driver has won their first K&N Pro Series start.
• Four times (Tim Flock, Dan Gurney, Joey Logano and Todd Gilliland) the driver has won their second start.
• Gurney won his first four starts, Gilliland has three straight, while Flock and Logano won their first two.
• For 16 of the first race/first win drivers, it was their only career series race
The series’ changes and evolutions over the years make it difficult to compare achievements. But regardless of the era, competition or the rules, the ability to win not only a first career start in a series, but also the second straight and, in very rare cases, a third and fourth, is a remarkable achievement.
Ken Clapp was there at Riverside when Gurney won, at Phoenix when Flock won, and has seen Gilliland from the start. The former NASCAR vice of marketing development, as well as vice president of western operations, feels the young Gilliland stacks up favorably.
“Regardless of what level it’s at, the playing field is level on the day that person accomplishes that,” said Ken Clapp, former NASCAR vice president of Western operations, who said. “If a guy can put that kind of consistency, where they’re the ones that are always a notch above, that’s special. He’s done everything to prove that so far and he has it in his genes.
“He’s taken what he’s learned from his grandfather and father, and put it all together. He’s extremely aggressively patient.
“You’ve either got it or you don’t. And he’s got it.”
The original Pacific Coast Late Model Series would become the long-standing NASCAR Winston West Series, before eventual adoption of the same rules package of the then NASCAR Busch North Series helped create the NASCAR K&N Pro Series as it stands today. The series has become a primary launching pad for the sport’s rising stars looking to reach the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR XFINITY Series and eventually the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Gilliland is well on his way.
Gilliland initially made headlines when he became the youngest winner in series history with a victory in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut last fall at Phoenix International Raceway. He followed up by winning the 2016 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East opener in February at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway. That victory made him just the 11th driver to win in both the East and West. Running for the K&N Pro Series West championship for Sacramento-based Bill McAnally Racing, Gilliland opened the current West season by taking the checkered flag at Irwindale.
Now the attention shifts to Kern, a high-speed half-mile on the outskirts of Bakersfield. While he’s tested at the three-year-old oval, it’s another in a list of tracks that Gilliland will be competing at for the first time. He remains undaunted.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge of going to all these new tracks and learning as quickly as I can,” he said. “I’m hoping we can keep up this success and go after a championship this year.”
Twenty-four drivers in the history of the West Series won their first career start, a list that starts with Dick Rathmann winning the inaugural series event in March of 1954 and includes the likes of Roger Penske and Cale Yarborough. Flock, who earned the Grand National champion in 1952 and 1955, won the Pacific Coast opener at the old Phoenix Fairgrounds on May 8, 1955. He followed up with a win in his next series start on July 31, 1955, at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, California. His streak ended with a third-place finish back at Phoenix Fairgrounds in January of 1956, in a race won by Buck Baker.
In the early years of the series, the Pacific Coast Late Models would run both stand-alone events as well as combination races with the Grand National Series. Drivers who won the combination events were credited with victories in both series.
This was the case for Gurney, who dominated the combination races at the former Riverside International Raceway in California. Four of Gurney’s five wins at the 2.62-mile road course came with the famed Wood Brothers, while his first appearance and first win was with Holman-Moody.
Gurney won his first start in the Grand National/Pacific Coast combination event at Riverside on Jan. 20, 1963. He did not start the race in November of 1963 despite sitting on the pole. A last-minute edict from USAC, in which they did not grant their drivers clearance to compete in the event, forced him to withdraw. Gurney was able to come back on Jan. 19, 1964 and make his second career series start — winning the race over Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts. Gurney stretched his streak with wins at Riverside in January of 1965 and 1966, before he finished 14th in January of 1967 in a race won by another notable sports car ace, Parnelli Jones.
Gurney did come back and win the 1968 Riverside race and closed out his stock car career with five West victories.
It was another 43 years before a driver went back-to-back.
In 2007, the first year NASCAR lowered the minimum age to compete in the touring series from 18-years-old to 16, a then-16-year-old Logano edged Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and fellow teenager Marc Davis to win his debut on April 19 in the NASCAR West Series race at Phoenix. Nine days later, he opened the East season with a win at South Carolina’s Greenville Pickens Speedway.
Logano’s overall (and East) streak ended with a 19th-place overall finish in the East-West combination event on May 18, 2007, at Elko (Minnesota) Speedway. While he did score the overall wintwo days later at Iowa Speedway, his West run concluded with a blown engine at Sonoma Raceway in June.
Logano was just the seventh driver to win their East debut since the series was founded in 1987. The list is now up to 14 names, including inaugural series winner Billy Clark, three-time East champion Jamie Aube, and current national series drivers Austin Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Tyler Reddick.
Both lists include national series drivers who dropped down to run one-off K&N events, such as Brian Vickers (Sonoma, 2006), Aric Almirola (Dover, 2008), and Kyle Busch (Iowa, 2009).
The minimum age has since been lowered to 15, opening the door for Gilliland to make history.
Gilliland is also entered at Bristol Motor Speedway in the K&N Pro Series East race on April 16, which means regardless of how he finishes at Kern, he still has the opportunity to become the first driver to win their first two East appearances.