By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
All that’s left for Todd Gilliland to do is just win the dang Daytona 500 and everything else will take care of itself.
Okay, it’s not quite that dire nor that simple, but winning the biggest race of the year would solve several emerging issues for the second-generation Cup Series racer at Front Row Motorsports. Gilliland found out over the winter that his full-time schedule would be scaled down to 30 races to make room for Truck Series champion Zane Smith and his five-race campaign.
Smith will enter the 500 with his Truck Series crew but will occupy the car Gilliland drives for the other five. That leaves Gilliland without a seat for those other five starts and seeking the funding to jump in another car during those weekends.
But, if he wins the Daytona and becomes playoff eligible, maybe that changes the calculus in some way.
“I don’t know if it would be easier for me or harder for the team, but my plan is definitely to go down there and win the Daytona 500,” Gilliland said during a Wednesday press conference. “I’ve told my team we’re speaking it into existence over here at Front Row Motorsports. That’s my plan.”
It’s the best-case scenario for Gilliland because the only two wins at the Cup level for Front Row has come at Talladega (2013, David Ragan with a push from David Gilliland) and the 2021 Daytona 500 with Michael McDowell.
Gilliland took his lumps as a rookie last year, made even more complicated by the debut of a new and radically different racing platform, with a 23.2 average finish and 28th place championship finish.
“In hindsight, there were definitely more variables than I expected,” Gilliland said. “Going in, I was super positive because we’re all going into a level playing field, an equal platform, learning the car at the same time.
“But the thing is, the team is also learning the cars. The first few laps every week, it was different than previous years because the teams had a good idea of where the splitter should be and heights, and this (past) year it was an unknown. I’m still very grateful to have done it in the first year. At the same time, the challenging part was learning it with the team and trying to get up to speed sometimes.”
And to that point, Gilliland was hoping to have had another full season with the chance to show progress. And he still can, but it does feel as though Smith is being groomed to take over for Gilliland in 2024.
Which could make the Daytona Duel on Thursday even more interesting because Gilliland may need to push Smith, an open team without a charter, into the race — something he says he will do without reservation.
“You have to push him and be a good teammate,” Gilliland said. “There’s still a lot to be said about that in this industry and that’s my plan, to be as helpful as I can for the whole organization that’s done so much for me over my career and is still doing so much for me.
“It’s not a break up for the future either. There’s nothing said that we can’t do this into the future, so I want to be a good teammate and member of this organization.”
It’s also an interesting dynamic because Smith and Gilliland are close friends. They have raced each other for years and Smith was in Gilliland’s wedding this off-season. That was after both drivers were notified about their 2023 agreements, by the way.
Smith does wonder sometimes if it could affect their friendship.
“A little bit,” Smith said. “It isn’t up to me, and he’s been around the sport for a long time and hope he understands.”
And he does.
“Since we both knew, he was in my wedding,” Gilliland said. “I haven’t spoken to him since it first came out but I’m sure we’re still going to be friends. It’s a tough business.
“It’s hard to be friends with people you compete against every week. I’ve run into it with Harrison Burton. You’re bound to have stuff happen. It’s tough at times, but you have to separate life and work sometimes, but it can be tough.”
Gilliland found out months ago and Front Row has been supportive of his efforts to find another ride for those five races. It was still a shock, but he wasn’t blindsided weeks before the season.
“There wasn’t any talk about this, Gilliland said. “The expectation was that we were running full-time and then it turned into ‘this is what we have’ and ‘this is what we have to do.’ That was a shock, but it was a couple of months ago and we’ve had some time to figure some stuff out.”
For Gilliland to fill those races, it would have to come in a Ford powered car, so that limits his options a little bit too. And ultimately, this is all sponsorship driven anyway, and if he can find the funding to be in a car, any team can make it happen.
“That’s part of the business, it’s a sponsorship driven sport,” Gilliland said. “I feel like we’ve done a good job of growing our partners. From my side of it, I feel like some of it came in later than what we would have hoped for. S,o I don’t know if that played into it.
“Talking to Jerry (Freeze, team president) and Bob (Jenkins, team owner), at a certain point, it gets old for Bob to spend millions and millions out of his own pocket every year so if we can offset it a little bit, that’s what I have to understand.”