Third-generation racer Todd Gilliland took advantage when the dominant car of J.J. Haley blew a tire with five laps to go, winning his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut at Phoenix International Raceway (AZ) Thursday night. Chris Eggleston, suddenly back in harm’s way due to the Haley caution, emerged from a scrape with his championship rival on the final lap to claim the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West title in his first full season on the tour.
Gilliland’s win highlighted a year of shattering records for the 15-year-old. This year alone, Gilliland won his debuts in the CARS Late Model Stock Tour, ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards, and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. Each victory also locked Gilliland down as the youngest winner in the respective series’ record books.
After all, if you’re going to be missing history class, you might as well be making some history for yourself.
“I had to miss school this weekend,” Gilliland laughed when asked why he hadn’t raced more in this series since turning 15. “But it turned out to be a real learning opportunity.”
Gilliland was impressive all evening in his #54 Bill McAnally Racing Toyota, starting 9th and slowly but steadily moving his way through the top-ten. He provided the most exciting moments of the evening as he chewed his way through the field because up front it was all Haley from the drop of the green flag.
Haley, looking to become the 5th driver to win for the East stalwart HScott Motorsports team this season, earned his first career 21 Means 21 Pole Award in qualifying early in the afternoon and absolutely dominated the race, leading the first 95 laps and routinely pulling away to leads of three and four seconds.
But Haley may have been just a little too good, as the right front blew out with the checkered flag just five laps away. Gilliland took the lead for the green-white-checkered restart and, despite a nifty crossover move by William Byron, was able to scoot away with the victory by two carlengths.
“The first half of the race we made a bunch of passes and figured out the race track more,” Gilliland explained. “The second half were we able to ride second and then when the 05 [Haley] blew the right front, we were in position to take over the lead. Dad [NASCAR driver David Gilliland] was on the radio that last caution, telling me all the little things, like how to work the body and the air.”
“Earlier today, I just didn’t really know if I was going to be up to the level of knowledge to be able to contend for the win. But I trusted my guys and my car. I knew we’d have a chance.”
Gilliland’s grandfather, 1997 NASCAR West Series champion Butch, who has been in Singapore most of the year on business, arrived to Phoenix in time to see his grandson claim the victory.
Eggleston’s day was even more eventual and perhaps even more satisfying, as he delivered legendary owner Bill McAnally his 7th NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in the last 16 years. The moments when Eggleston’s championship seemed most in doubt were the first moments of the day and the final ones.
Just twenty minutes into practice, Eggleston’s brand new motor went up in smoke. The BMR team thrashed hard and were able to get their driver back out to run a few laps at the end of the session. While never speedy nor spectacular, Eggleston and machine proved to be consistent throughout the night. He started 15th in the race and slowly made his way up to the back half of the top-ten by the halfway break.
He would ride there most of the second half of the event and seemed to be in a comfortable place until Haley drew the yellow. For the green-white-checkered, chief points rival Noah Gragson pulled up alongside Eggleston. They ran practically dead even for the last two laps before Gragson got extremely aggressive trying to rough up Eggleston.
Gragson gave Eggleston a bump and then, when Eggleston backed off the throttle, lifted Eggleston’s rear wheels off the ground. Eggleston was able to fight the car, but was also lucky when a fading Ronnie Bassett wound up washing up to Eggleston’s outside. Eggleston bounced into Bassett, turning Bassett into Gragson. Eggleston drove through the carnage and secured the title.
The title seemed unlikely just over a year ago when Eggleston, aside from winning The Race, a Super Late Model special held at North Wilkesboro Speedway in 2011, had more or less retired back to running weekly at his native Colorado National Speedway. But McAnally called up Eggleston to run a lone race at Colorado in summer 2014 and Eggleston was able to reward the opportunity with a victory. That led to a mutual respect that followed up with a last-minute full-time 2015 ride.
“I’m so thankful for Bill, for the opportunity he gave me,” Eggleston said as he put his arms around McAnally. “A one-off deal last year wound up putting us in this position. He pulled some strings to get me in the car for this year. Just a few weeks before Kern I didn’t have anything lined up for this year. And yet, here we are.”
Despite the rough ending, Eggleston remained calm about the incident with Gragson and even tried to put himself in Gragson’s position.
“We definitely went through some adversity today, especially right off the bat blowing the motor early in the practice. The guys did a phenomenal job getting us back out there; I think they broke a record for replacing a motor. It was fortysome minutes to change it out. I put us in a hole qualifying 15th, but with limited seat time I just didn’t know what we had. I was worried I was abusing the tire a little hard. With those guys blowing right fronts, I got nervous so I backed off a little bit.”
“It sure got interesting that last lap, that last corner. I don’t know what it looked like, but the whole season flashed before my eyes. I’m just thankful we were able to hold on more than anything. Truthfully, I didn’t really know he [Gragson] was behind me. We’re all put in situations, we all make split decisions, and we’re all different people when we strap on those helmets. I didn’t expect him to get to us and, when he did, drive through us like that. You can never expect that, you can never prepare for that.”
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series season is over for both the West and East circuits. They will crown their titlists formally at the NASCAR Night of Champions Gala at the Hall of Fame on December 11th. Speed51.com will have a full championship profile on Eggleston in the coming weeks.
Casino Arizona 100 Results
|1||54||Todd Gilliland *||101|
|4||52||Dalton Sargeant *||101|
|6||12||Harrison Burton *||101|
|7||40||Travis Miller *||101|
|11||9||Ryan Partridge *||101|
|12||21||Alex Schutte *||101|
|13||7||Noah Gragson *||101|
|15||31||Johnny White *||101|
|17||55||Blake Williams *||101|
|18||48||Clay Green *||101|
|19||44||Austin Reed *||101|
|20||04||Ronnie Bassett Jr.||101|
|22||33||Nicole Behar *||100|
|23||14||Matt Levin *||97|
|24||27||Gracin Raz *||94|
|26||30||Ron Norman *||64|
|27||20||Spencer Davis *||44|
— Photos & Story by Tim Quievryn // Speed51.com Southeast Editor // @thethirdturn