One big Busch Series win practically made David Gilliland a rock star within NASCAR.
Now he has a chance to show his stuff on the Cup side.
Gilliland, set to make just the ninth start of his Cup career – and eighth since joining Robert Yates Racing in August – won the pole Saturday and will lead the field to the green flag for the UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega on Sunday.
"I'm real excited and proud of this team," Gilliland told SportsTicker. "To be able to start on the pole here the first time I've raced here is very exciting."
While it might be surprising for a rookie to claim the pole at Talladega – it hadn't happened since Jimmie Johnson in May 2002 – Yates' No. 38 Ford is accustomed to setting the pace during qualifying at the Alabama track. The car's previous driver Elliott Sadler – who left Yates this summer to drive Ray Evernham's No. 19 Dodge – won three Talladega poles in the No. 38, including at this race last year and in the May race earlier this season. He also started third there two other times.
Further, Gilliland's teammate Dale Jarrett, who starts second alongside Gilliland on Sunday, is the defending race winner.
In other words, the car played a big role in Gilliland winning the pole, and he knows it.
"It's a pleasure to drive one of [Yates'] cars, especially here," Gilliland told the AP. "They've got a great track record here, and it's just a pleasure to drive one."
In June, Gilliland generated buzz and earned the admiration of many in the Cup garage by beating the Buschwhackers to win the Kentucky Busch race while driving for an underfunded team that closed its doors shortly after Gilliland left to replace Sadler in Yates' Cup program. But Gilliland's Cup career hasn't gotten off to a quick start, as he finished 32nd or worse in his first six starts – five of which came with Yates.
But Gilliland's fortunes slowly have been improving lately, as he collected a personal-best finish of 22nd last week at Kansas, one week after finally breaking the top 30 with a 27th-place run at Dover.
Now comes the pole at Talladega, which easily bests the 30-year-old Californian's best previous Cup start of 15th at New Hampshire last month.
Gilliland will start up front Sunday, but don't necessarily expect him to finish there.
After all, there is the rookie factor.
Having drafting help on the restrictor plate tracks essentially is a prerequisite for winning or finishing well, and veterans are far less likely to entrust their fortunes to a rookie.
It's a lesson Johnson learned during his rookie season in 2002 when he started on the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 – also a restrictor plate superspeedway race.
"I don't even think I made it around [one lap] with the lead," said Johnson, who indeed failed to lead even one lap in that race. "It wasn't that I was nervous, there's just a lot going on in the draft.
"I think David is a quick learner and has proven himself in order to get this chance and drive for Yates. [Sunday], the beginning of the race may not be his best performance, but by the end with the lessons he'll learn and the things he'll go through, he'll be much better at the draft by the conclusion of the race."
Sadler did lead several times for a total of 23 laps after starting from the Talladega pole in the No. 38 earlier this year (he finished 16th). Gilliland knows he needs to overcome that rookie stigma on superspeedways, and he's hoping that Yates horsepower will help him do just that on Sunday.
"I'm just looking to go out there and build some respect," Gilliland said in a TV interview shortly after winning the pole. "Everybody I've heard talked to said it's going to be hard to find people to work with us. I agree with that to a point, but I feel like if we have a fast enough car they won't have a choice."
Gilliland is a big part of the Yates organization's future, as Jarrett will leave for Toyota following this season. And Jarrett, for one, believes Yates will be in good hands.
"[Gilliland's] got a lot of talent," said Jarrett, who believes his own No. 88 can win Sunday. "It wasn't like Doug or Robert [Yates] went out and grabbed the first person they could find. They were keeping their eye on a lot of people out there and I think he showed that he can be fast at some race tracks already, and that's something that I'm not sure you can teach."
Nor is, always, a driver's belief in his and his team's ability to win races.
"Every successful race car driver has plenty of confidence and knows he can go out there and win," Gilliland told the Charlotte Observer. "I feel like I can win and Robert Yates Racing can win. We just have to tie it all together."
- Robert Yates Racing