Last week, Gifford was soaking in the scene on the frontstretch dirt of Eldora Speedway after Austin's historic Camping World Truck Series victory on the tacky Ohio clay. This weekend, Gifford will be enjoying a landmark start of his own, making his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut with Richard Childress Racing in Saturday night's U.S. Cellular 250 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).
"For me, I'm looking forward to it probably more than anything I've looked forward to in years," Gifford said Tuesday during a NASCAR Cam teleconference. "I'm really, really excited. I'm confident that I think I can get a good run. Just waiting on it to get here. It's kind of like the last day of school -- it doesn't get here soon enough."
Gifford, 24, currently ranks fourth in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standings in his fourth season with the Max Siegel-owned Rev Racing team. But the Tennessee native works just as closely with the Dillon brothers' dirt late model operation, both in the driver's seat and back at the race shop in Welcome, N.C.
A race-driving instructor pointed Gifford in the direction of Mike Dillon, Austin and Ty's father, and longtime team owner Richard Childress six years ago. Gifford's been connected with the team ever since.
Austin Dillon, 23, is in the midst of his second full season on the Nationwide Tour, two years removed from his truck series championship campaign in 2011. Ty Dillon, 21, is also a sophomore, already with two wins to his credit in just a season and a half of Camping World Truck Series competition. Working so closely with two friends and contemporaries has given Gifford a wealth of experience to tap into as he climbs the stock-car ladder.
"They're definitely full of energy," Gifford said. "It's always cool to be able to hang out with them, see them go through the start of their career, how it all works. For me, I've got to learn a lot from them. They definitely do a lot to try and help me out. Every now and then they let me get in the dirt cars and things like that.
"It's been a fun journey throughout my career to be able to see them go, and go through their career. It's taught me a lot. Hopefully I can apply a lot of those things as things maybe get going for me."
Being so hands-on with two of NASCAR's rising stars has also given him a pair of driving styles to emulate. Though he leans more toward Austin than Ty in the driving department, he's also tried to forge his own identity behind the wheel.
"Austin and Ty both are really, really good drivers," said Gifford, a member of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity initiative. "I try to learn as much as I can from both of them. They're almost like complete opposites. But a guy right in the middle would be about perfect. They're both guys that I try and learn a lot from. That's one of the things that I do a lot, is watch their races, just try and pick out things that they do that make them better than other guys. It seems to help me."
Gifford's path to a national series debut has been a steady progression rather than a meteoric rise. He admits as much, calling his four-season run in K&N competition a "long road" to this weekend's opportunity at Iowa.
Patience paid off for Gifford in April at Richmond International Raceway, where he finally snared his first K&N victory in 44 starts, helping erase the sour memories of near-misses and on-track heartache.
"That definitely helped my confidence a lot. Made me feel like I can do it, I can go out there and win on a regular basis," said Gifford, who will pull a K&N/Nationwide doubleheader at Iowa. "You're in position to win a lot of times, and things go wrong. You're like, 'Man, am I ever going to be able to get this done?' To go out there and get my first win was big. It helped the momentum of our team so much and morale."
Saturday night, Gifford will be flying the banner for RCR at Iowa, making him the eighth driver this season to pilot the No. 33 Chevrolet. He joins -- in order of appearance --Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Ty Dillon, Dakoda Armstrong, Max Papis, Paul Menard and Matt Crafton among the varied group with a turn behind the wheel.
With solid equipment under him, Gifford says he knows he has a chance to be competitive. But the goals for his maiden voyage in a Nationwide car may be more modest.
"Well, my goal is definitely a win, but realistically if I can go out there and finish all the laps is my first goal," Gifford said. "Then from there, if you do that, you stay on the lead lap, you should end up somewhere between the top five, top 10, something like that. ... It's one of those things where it will be getting me comfortable, getting me up to speed. From there we'll just have to see how it goes."
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Sports & Recreation
- Motor Racing