By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
When NASCAR implemented a rule to lock the top 35 teams into races simply by owner points and regardless of their speed in qualification, it was intended to reward full-time entries and their high-dollar sponsors by ensuring they could come to the track without fear of missing the show.
Someone forgot to tell the plucky Racer's Group team and David Gilliland that it was not intended to help their lightly funded entry, which enters this weekend with a blank hood and a part-time sponsor on the quarter panel.
After failing to advance into the Daytona 500 through its qualification race with Mike Wallace behind the wheel, the No. 71 team might have been written off by many. But in just one short month since that disappointment, it finds itself with a new driver, 34th in the point standings -- and on the cusp of earning one of the coveted guaranteed starting positions for next week when the 2009 point standings lock in the current top 35 drivers, ranked in car owner points.
"We took a real flier in January when we decided to run the 500," car owner Kevin Buckler said. "When we didn't make it, we quickly revamped our team and went to California with a renewed spirit to succeed in this sport. We wanted it bad."
To put their effort into perspective, sitting 34th in the standings wedges the Racer's Group unsponsored car between drivers for two of the sport's superteams: the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Home Depot Chevrolet driven by Joey Logano (ranked 33rd), and the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Kellogg's Chevy driven by Mark Martin (35th), who earned the pole for Sunday's Food City 500 during qualifying on Friday.
"We want to try to put ourselves solidly in the top 35 in points," Gilliland said after qualifying 14th on Friday. "That is the main goal. We are just here to try to stay here. We just want to dig our feet a little deeper in the sand and get our footing for the future."
Added Buckler, "Everyone is working flat-out to make this work but also enjoying racing again. We know we are the Davids and the underdog every weekend, but that fuels this team even more and it has brought us together."
The "David" behind the wheel battling NASCAR's Goliaths is Gilliland, who was hired only days before the team rolled into Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The organization has established a pattern of doing things in a hurry: The team was formed only two weeks before the season-opening race at Daytona.
More remarkable still, the team has elevated the No. 71 to its improbable position using only one car in the three races before Bristol. The backup that has been on the hauler each week was the superspeedway car that failed to qualify in Daytona.
"There are not many drivers that can race three races in a row and not even scratch the car," said crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe. "We've done more damage loading the car than he has running 1,500 miles."
It's a position Gilliland hasn't found himself in since he owned his own cars. Last year, he competed with Yates Racing and ended the season 28th in the standings, but a complicated point swap and the current recession left him the odd man out with that organization.
"At Yates we had about 10 cars and a spare for each race," Gilliland said. "It is a different driving style knowing that you don't have all of the resources. I can't take any extra chances and have to err on the conservative side in every situation. It has played out OK for us so far.
"I have owned my own team before with just one car to race. We had to win or finish well to be able to run the next week."
And that is the situation Gilliland finds himself in once more. The original plan was to run the first five races and evaluate the situation for the remainder of the season. If the team leaves Bristol inside the top 35 in the standings, it will head to Martinsville Speedway next week.
"So far we have done everything that we need to do to position the team to run the rest of the season and move up the field and be competitive," Buckler said.
Last year, Gilliland ran an impressive race at Bristol, finishing ninth in the spring event. He admits that earning another top-10 will take some luck, but even a solid 22nd-place finish like the one he recorded at Bristol last August will solidify the team in the points.
"To run ninth again will take some luck," Gilliland said. "The key to doing well at Bristol is you have to have a strong car. If you have a slow car and you are in the way, you are going to get punted, booted and spun out and wrecked."
Added Buckler, "We are at the crossroads. Bristol is so important for this new team. Yes, there is a lot of pressure this weekend. Running at Bristol only adds to that pressure. We are asking a lot of David and Slugger, but so far they have responded to the pressure and performed."
Early in the weekend, it seemed as if the pressure might have been too much. A problem with the kill switch on the steering wheel caused them to miss nearly one-third of Friday's first practice session, but, Gilliland said, "Nobody freaked out. Everybody stayed calm and went to work."
He added, "I feel really good about how the car drives and just really happy about the position that the team is in right now. Hopefully we can run good on Sunday, attract some sponsors and keep this thing going."