Gilliland, TRG Firing “Blanks” at Cup’s Big Boys
By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Correspondent
Talledega, Ala. – Forty years ago NASCAR’s regular drivers went on strike at the Talladega Superspeedway and towed their cars out of the massive Alabama track the day before the race. In qualifying for the Aaron’s 499 on Saturday, 10 drivers were trying to fight their way into the field and praying their haulers would not be leaving prior to the race.
Among the “go-or-go-homers” was David Gilliland, driving a plain blue Chevy for TRG Motorsports, operated by professional sports car driver turned team owner Kevin Buckler.
Buckler describes his team as one those “carrying the Cinderella torch,” a small privateer trying to break into NASCAR’s big time. He is now familiar with the routine of waiting for the final slots in the qualifying order, the ones allotted to the go-or-go-homers. While teams such as those of pole winner Juan Pablo Montoya compete to bring their sponsors publicity and to bring their team momentum on a track where starting position is hardly crucial to the outcome, Buckler eats nerves.
“It’s always nerve-wracking no matter how many times we’ve done it,” said Buckler. “Any little thing like a flat tire could take us out and we’d have to go home.” After failing by half a car length to make the field for the Daytona 500, TRG made its eighth straight race once Gilliland qualified 26th on Talladega’s 2.66-mile oval, sixth-quickest among the go-or-go-homers. Eric McClure and Michael McDowell were the two drivers who went home after finishing ninth and tenth among those not guaranteed a starting spot.
Montoya, after waiting through the lengthy qualifying session extended by the blown engine of David Stremme, was pleased to record his first official pole since coming to NASCAR in late 2006. His lone previous quickest time, at the Kansas Speedway last year, was thrown out due to an illegal shock.
“The IndyCar team (of Chip Ganassi) has always been strong,” said the Columbian. “We want to have this side at least as strong.”
Montoya, whose best finish on an oval is a second at Talladega a year ago, said the pole doesn’t make him a favorite to win. But it gives his recently merged team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing something to celebrate. “Everybody connected with the team is having a beer right now,” said Montoya, who had to postpone lunch while awaiting the outcome of the 45-car solo qualifying process.
Such thirst-slaking momentum has yet to catch up with TRG Motorsports.
Despite the qualifying streak and the fact TRG has hovered around the guaranteed starting position benchmark of the Top 35 in the car owner points, Buckler has what he calls “a blank” Chevrolet, a car without sponsorship. It’s a familiar problem for those who took advantage of fields reduced by the economy to pursue the Sprint Cup. “We’re single and available,” he said. “Neither of the sponsors that were involved with us previously are with us now. They had trouble coughing up the money.”
Team owner Richard Childress, winner of six Sprint Cup championships, provides leased engines to TRG and says he can identify with what Buckler is trying to do. But Childress, who broke in as an owner/driver when he crossed the picket line to race at that first Talladega event 40 years ago, said times are different now due to the dependence on sponsors.
“He’s got a tougher challenge,” said Childress. “Sponsorship plays such a great role. The amount of money you need to run now is quite a bit more than what we had.” Childress raced for six seasons before he landed his first sponsor, Kansas Jack, which paid him $50,000 per year for a 30-race season. Currently, sponsorship of $50,000 per race for a 36-event season is considered a bare minimum in a series where last place can pay as much as $75,000.
Buckler, who earlier this year said he had found $300,000 in sponsorship to start the season, may not be able to continue after next week’s race in Richmond. Even though purse money is substantial it’s not enough to race on with a shoestring operation of five full-time crewmen led by veteran Crew Chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe and five part-time crewman. “At some point you have to exercise fiscal responsibility,” said Buckler, who said he would move to a selected race schedule before he would “start and park” to pick up prize money without the expenses of running an entire race.
“We’ve got (sponsorship) irons in the fire,” said Buckler. “But I’m not counting on anything until I see a signature on a check.”
No stranger to lots of balls in the air simultaneously, on this weekend Buckler watched qualifying at Talladega from Danville, Va., where he had four Porsches entered in the Grand-Am Series event. TRG also had a truck entered in the Camping World Series race for J.R. Fitzpatrick at the Kansas Speedway. In all, he had 68 crewmen working on six entries in three states.
Gilliland, who replaced Mike Wallace, began the Sprint Cup qualifying streak when he came on board at the California Speedway after gaining his release from Yates Racing, where he finished 27th in the points last year. As usual, he’ll go from the frying pan to the fire once the race begins, because practice sessions were spent on preparing for qualifying and not the race.
Under a strategy focused on finishing races that Buckler describes as “bowling the ball down the middle,” Gilliland’s best finish this year has been 14th at Bristol, 10 laps behind winner Kyle Busch in part due to tire problems.
At Talladega, the challenge is even more difficult because the cars are impounded after time trials. Gilliland could not practice much drafting in his Chevy at a track where it is crucial to survival as well as performance. “We have to spend a lot of time practicing in qualifying trim” said Gilland. “Being locked into the top 35 you can focus on race trim. We were looking for pure speed. We were doing all single-car runs in practice to make sure we qualified.”