Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: A Hot Diggity Dog Day for Todd Gilliland in Martinsville

Top Dog: Todd Gilliland

Just a year ago, you couldn’t blame Todd Gilliland if he would have questioned his future before the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season started.

Front Row Motorsports had opted to put Zane Smith in the No. 38 for six races, a seat that was supposed to solely feature Gilliland. And for a team that featured a rookie driver for four consecutive seasons from 2019-2022, it muddied the picture even more for Gilliland’s fate with the team.

Those questions would be put to rest in the late summer when FRM announced Gilliland would be returning for this season. Yet there was a common belief that the pressure hadn’t quite eased on the 23-year-old to perform.

Following 415 laps in the Cook Out 400 at Martinsville Speedway, Gilliland proved he belongs yet again, scoring a 13th-place finish.

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After starting 16th, Gilliland finished a caution-free first stage in (you can guess) 16th! Shocking, considering the “amount of passing,” right?

A pit stop malfunction pit seemingly put Gilliland in dire straits during the stage break, when he exited pit road with a wrench still in the car, prompting a penalty for removing equipment.

However, that did not deter Gilliland, who drove back up to 19th by the end of the stage.

In the final stage, the North Carolinian made an impressive climb into the top 10, settling in eighth for a large part of the run. Despite losing a couple of spots in the final green flag pit stop cycle, Gilliland seemed primed to leave Martinsville with a top 10.

Unfortunately, that all changed when John Hunter Nemechek brought out a late yellow, setting up an overtime restart. Gilliland slipped back to 13th in the final two laps, robbing him of what should have been at least a 10th-place result. Still, he has now finished 13th or better in three of his past four starts at The Paperclip.

FRM’s third-year driver is quietly finding a rhythm in the top half of the field early on. Don’t let his 23.5 average finish fool you; he’s been a consistent sight in at least the top 20 in the first eight races, outrunning his veteran teammate Michael McDowell on several occasions. And as the season wears on, this team will eventually be rewarded for its speed.

How Does it Compare?

There’s good news and bad news for Gilliland’s 13th-place result. The bad news is that it did not top his underdog peers or the most recent finish by the top dog at Martinsville. The good news? That mark was set by him in the fall race last season, where he scored a 10th-place finish. Gilliland was also the top dog in the fall race of 2022, where he crossed the start/finish line in 14th.

In the other three races when looking at the previous five Martinsville events, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scored an eighth-place finish in this race last spring, tied for the highest run by an underdog at Martinsville in that stretch. In 2022, top dog belonged to Ross Chastain in fifth, though he was soon removed from the list of dark horses. And in 2021 it was Erik Jones leading the underdogs, scoring his lone top 10 at The Paperclip in eighth.

Notable Underdog Runs

As for who scored the top spot among the underdogs on the scoring pylon, that would go to Jones, who closed out the race in 12th. Jones’s run was a race-long, methodical piece of work. The Legacy Motor Club star struggled with center turn to begin the race, miring him around 20th. But adjustments throughout the race saw Jones go to 18th by the end of stage two, 15th midway through the final stage and ultimately 12th when the checkered flag flew. It is the Michigan native’s best result at Martinsville since a 12th-place run in 2020.

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It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Carson Hocevar did not have this race circled on his calendar. In four NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series starts at the Virginia track, he recorded a 19th-place average finish, never scoring a top 10. And in his lone Cup start last fall, he finished 31st, four laps down.

However, the freshman driver left Martinsville as the highest finishing rookie in 17th. Hocevar ran steadily inside the top 20 for most of the race, dodging a blow during the stage two break when NASCAR initially issued a penalty for vehicle interference. The penalty was soon removed, allowing Hocevar to retain his position. However, his race still didn’t come without a close call coming to the white flag.

Despite the chaos at the end, Hocevar not only scored Spire Motorsports’ best finish at Martinsville, it was also the organization’s first top 20 there.

He also got in on the Martinsville hot dog antics during the weekend.

While some drivers fared well, others are ready to leave the short track stretch in the rearview mirror. Daniel Hemric kicked off his return to Cup with three consecutive top 20s to commence the year. Since then, he hasn’t finished better than 28th, ending Sunday in that spot for the third time in the past five races.

After his best season since joining JTG Daugherty Racing a year ago, Stenhouse has not found his footing to begin 2024. Stenhouse’s day became a headache quickly when he was turned on pit road after the conclusion of stage one, then hit with a speeding penalty to rub salt in the wound.

Stenhouse never recovered from the early setback, finishing 29th. The 2023 Daytona 500 champion has now finished outside the top 20 in five consecutive races.

While Hocevar found success inside the top 20, his teammates at Spire certainly did not. Smith’s struggles continued with a 31st-place run, which was not helped by a loose wheel during the stage one break. Corey LaJoie has also had a wheel nearly come off early in the race, setting him back multiple laps from the get go. He finished 32nd, his sixth consecutive race outside the top 20.

To wrap up drivers who are looking for a rabbit’s foot right now, Harrison Burton left with a battered car and a 33rd-place finish. Burton struggled from the green flag, falling a lap down early and never looking comfortable with the handling. At one point, his car became a life-sized pinball.

In a year where the 23-year-old needs to perform to stay off the hot seat, that seat’s only gotten hotter. He has two finishes better than 30th in eight races, combining for a 29.5 average finish, more than five spots behind his 24.7 mark from 2023.

What They’re Saying

Josh Williams (27th): “We survived today and got to complete all the laps. Overall, it was an up-and-down day, but thankfully we gained a few spots during the green-white-checkered there at the end. Really proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing, as I continue to learn and compete at the highest level.” (via Kaulig’s race recap)

Hemric (28th): “Today was a hard-fought one. We started out super tight, and I felt like I just killed the right-side tires early on. Trent [Owens] made some great calls, and we continued to get the No. 31 Cirkul Chevy close to where it needed to be during the second stage. We tried gambling a little and running long during the final stage, but unfortunately, we never caught a caution. I’m definitely proud of the hard work this team put in this weekend that we can bring back here in the fall. We definitely made the car more competitive and are going in the right direction.” (via Kaulig’s race recap)

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Underdog Bracket Challenge

With the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament completed and the Men’s champion yet to be crowned (go Boilermakers), the final of the Underdog Bracket Challenge also took place. Unfortunately, the two competitors did not set the world on fire.

The match-up pitted Williams against Nemechek, but a right front rotor failure on Nemechek’s car sealed the honors of the inaugural underdog tournament for Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 entry. Williams finished 27th, while the crash relegated Nemechek to 36th.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Whether it’s on Josh Berry‘s No. 4 or with Stenhouse, the Sunny D colors never cease to fail. The juice brand returned in its longtime partnership with Stenhouse, giving fans something to thirst for to go with a famous Martinsville hot dog.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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