Todd Gilliland on measuring progress in NASCAR, how tall guys fit in Cup cars and driver pickleball: 12 Questions

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Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Front Row Motorsports driver Todd Gilliland, who is 25th in the point standings early in his third NASCAR Cup Series season but ranks 10th in the Cup Series with a career-high 91 laps led so far this year. This interview has been edited and condensed, but the full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. What is currently the No. 1 thing on your bucket list?

I would love to run some other races — a dirt late model or something like that. And then I was just watching the F1 highlights, and I would love to go to an F1 race. And I’d like to play some cool golf courses, too — like Pebble Beach or something. That would be pretty, pretty high up there.

Is there any F1 track in particular you’d like to go to?

A good one would be (Circuit of the Americas, where NASCAR also races) because I could relate a little bit more. Whereas if I go to Australia or Bahrain or something like that, I would just have no clue what they’re actually dealing with. But (COTA) would be super cool just to semi-feel like you know what they’re feeling, even though they’re going obviously 10 times faster. And also just to see the place packed with fans sitting everywhere — just a little bit different atmosphere to experience.

2. How much media coverage of NASCAR do you consume?

Not a ton. Actually, I probably do (a lot). Just going on the X app. Probably the most is you and Bob Pockrass and Jordan Bianchi, just scrolling by and seeing clips of your guys’ podcast, and then obviously Bob (Pockrass) is always tweeting out everything. I don’t read that many articles, but I always see tons of clips of Denny (Hamlin’s) podcast.

3. Beyond winning, what is the best way to measure success in racing?

For us this year, we haven’t necessarily gotten good results at all, but we’ve been running much better week in and week out at this point. And it definitely sucks to not have results. At the same time, there’s tons of other ways to (measure), like your average running position. Just knowing where we’re running, knowing what cars we’re racing around, we’re definitely taking steps in the right direction. But in racing, pretty much everything is (about) lap time to the one-thousandth of a second, and it’s all pretty cut and dried as far as results go.

4. What is an opinion you have about NASCAR you don’t think is shared by the fans?

A couple of weeks ago, it was about the dirt race at Bristol. I’ve always had a lot of fun on dirt. But definitely, there’s not many other people who think that.

Honestly, the racing right now is probably some of the best we’ve ever had. It’s easily forgotten what racing used to be like; you just remember the good parts. Looking back and watching all of our races, they’re honestly really good.

5. What is the biggest thing fans don’t realize about what you do for a living?

With the schedule we have now, we are here for three days, but there’s honestly a little bit of off time during the weekends. Like today we’re going to be pretty much done by noonish. So as far as all that goes, the schedule is really cool. I’ve seen even fans say this, like it’s different even camping at a racetrack now just because there’s not a whole lot going on on the racetrack. We actually have more time now than ever to go check out the city and explore a little bit more.

6. So the next one is a current topic related to yourself. This is Talladega week, and I’m thinking back to Daytona and then Atlanta where you led laps earlier this year. At this point in your career, is it still cool to say, “We led laps in the Daytona 500” or are you now like, “If it’s not a win, it doesn’t matter?” What’s the balance now?

I’ve definitely taken a few steps toward, “We need to win and do much better.” It is still cool to be able to lead laps, and that is a step in the right direction; last year, I literally led zero laps all season.

But at the same time in the Daytona 500, I really felt like we had a good chance at being a top-five finisher and being in contention for the win at the end of the race, and we got in the wreck. I was super disappointed after that. And then Atlanta, we had one of the fastest cars (Gilliland led the most laps in that race). That was another huge missed opportunity for us.

Those are the two most disappointing races I’ve had in a really long time, even though there are obviously high spots. But the more high spots you have, the more hungry you are and the more your expectations get raised. So going into Talladega, we definitely expect to contend for the win there.

7. This next one is a wild-card question. You are one of the tallest drivers in the Cup Series, if not the tallest (Gilliland is 6-foot-3). Is there anything special you have to do? Does your team have to make your seat lower? Is it harder for you to get in and out of the car? Anything you have to do differently?

Surprisingly, no. I was super lucky to come into the Cup Series with the Next Gen car. Coming from the Truck Series, my knees were like super high up. The roof height is super high in the truck, but the actual cab size is super short. So my knees were super high, almost touching the steering wheel and touching the dash every week.

In the Cup car, I have tons of legroom. I don’t even think my pedals and everything are as far away as they could be. So that’s kind of interesting; I thought for sure anytime I got back into a car that my head was gonna be super high (close to the roof). And yeah, I have no head issues and no real length issues either. So I’m super happy with how I fit in these cars.

It’s funny in the Cup garage; I’m definitely one of the tallest. But in the real-life world, I’m really not that tall.

8. What do you like about the place where you grew up? I guess you grew up in North Carolina in the Mooresville area and not California (even though he was born in California), right?

That’s what I always tell my team. Our shop is right in the middle of Mooresville, and I literally grew up going to the same exact restaurants that are right around our shop, going down (N.C.) 150. I’m sure people in Mooresville know, but it’s the main road and usually backed up with traffic and kind of a mess.

But I always tell people that’s my favorite road in America, just with all the race shops right there. I grew up in the middle of it all and that’s probably what I love most about it. There’s always race fans in town, no matter what time of the year.

Todd Gilliland (far left) led the most laps in February’s Atlanta race before finishing 26th. He says the team goes into Talladega weekend expecting to contend. (Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

Were you like 6 or 7 when you moved to North Carolina (after his father, David, got a Cup Series ride with Robert Yates Racing)?

I think I was 5. I had just started school in California and moved halfway through the year. So pretty much everything I remember is North Carolina.

9. What personality trait are you the most proud of?

I’m pretty caring. For the most part, I’m pretty happy and just trying to get the best out of everyone. My leadership characteristic needs to keep getting better as I hopefully keep progressing through the Cup Series. But most of the time I try and make people smile and just get the best out of them.

10. What driver would you least like to be stuck with on an elevator?

I don’t know. Some of the driver intro ride-arounds are a little bit awkward at times, just because I’m always riding around with kind of the same people. But I pretty much like everyone, so that’s a hard question. Anyone who is having a bad day who expected to have a good day, those are always the not-so-fun ones.

11. What is a run-in you’ve had with a driver that TV or the media missed?

At Phoenix (last month) we flipped our pit strategy and got in the front. We were just slowly losing spots, and I got settled in and I was trying to pass (Chase Briscoe). And man, we were racing super hard. We were crossing each other over. I probably wasn’t doing a good job of just getting clear of him and driving away. I was more frustrated in myself, but we were just losing spots after we had perfect track position and set up in a good spot, but then Briscoe was racing me super hard. Stuff piles up quick, and that was probably the most mad, the most frustrated I’ve been in a while.

Did you guys have to talk afterward?

No, I had like a one-lap meltdown. And I was like, “Alright, sorry. I’m refocused. We’re good.”

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. The last one I did was with Connor Zilisch and he said he’s played pickleball with you before, so it got him thinking: What is your favorite pastime away from the track?

I definitely love pickleball, and I’m excited for summertime so we can have longer nights and warmer nights especially. There’s a cool group of us — me, Zane (Smith), Connor, Noah (Gragson), Harrison (Burton) — and we always go out and play pickleball and hang out.

But probably my most fun thing away from the track is golf. I’ve really been getting into that and getting new clubs. Trying to get a little bit better; that’s an endless sport you can always get better at.

The next interview I’m doing is with Martin Truex Jr. Do you have a question I might be able to ask him?

I know he’s a big outdoors guy. I don’t even know where he spends most of his time, but what’s the coolest place to go fishing? I feel like he probably goes a lot of places.



Top 5, Texas: Chase Elliott back to victory lane, and a good show for Texas Motor Speedway

(Top photo of Todd Gilliland at last month’s race in Bristol: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

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