Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Stars, Stripes & Rainy Nights for Todd Gilliland at Charlotte

Top Dog: Todd Gilliland

At 5:30 p.m. ET at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the prestige of Sunday’s (May 26) 65th annual Coca-Cola 600 was soaring.

Fans draped in either red, white and blue or their favorite driver’s apparel poured into the facility to witness one of the greatest events in racing.

There was curiosity surrounding if Kyle Larson could pull the Memorial Day Double, competing in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coke 600. There was a former president attending the race for the first time and there was a halfway break scheduled, a full slate of remembering those who gave their all for our country. You could feel the anticipation reaching an absolute peak.

Four hours later, it came to a crashing halt due to one of the most dreaded words in motorsports: rain.

Despite the weather ruining Larson’s attempt, cutting NASCAR’s longest race short by 151 laps, the action was strong. Drivers had multiple lane options and worked their way up to the wall, creating great battles throughout the field.

That aided Todd Gilliland, the night’s top underdog, who finished 17th after having to start 35th for Front Row Motorsports.

Stage one was a bit of a struggle for Gilliland as he fell a lap down and concluded the stage in 30th. That didn’t keep him from fighting hard, however, getting into a fierce battle for the free pass with a few other cars that included several close calls and exciting racing. Unfortunately, he just missed out on the lucky dog.

A caution with 13 to go in the first stage allowed Gilliland to wave around, setting him up to get back on the lead lap and pit at the end of the stage. Three cautions in the latter part of stage two allowed the No. 38 team to work on tightening up the car, and Gilliland improved to 24th by the end of the stage prior to the moment of remembrance.

In about the 50 laps the field was able to complete in the third stage, the Sherrills Ford, N.C. native worked his way into the top 20 and ultimately up to 17th before the rain began to fall, eventually prompting NASCAR to call the event.

The run was impressive from Gilliland considering how he started, and it gives him his third top 20 in a row. The Ford driver continues to be on track to earn a career-best average finish (21.7) and points finish (22nd).

How Does It Compare?

The first two Coke 600s under the Next Gen era were certainly chaotic, mixing up the results more than this year’s edition. However, the common underdog to best in the past five 600s was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Last year, Stenhouse outlasted the attrition to finish in seventh, matching his result from the 2022 race as well.

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver also topped the group in 2021, finishing 12th. In the other two events, this year’s winner, Christopher Bell, led the underdogs in ninth in 2020 when he was at the now-defunct Leavine Family Racing team, while Corey LaJoie paced the group in 2019 by finishing 12th.

Notable Underdog Runs

Daniel Hemric may have been the most impressive of the underdog bunch overall with an 18th-place finish. The Kannapolis, N.C. native appeared to adapt to his home track rather quickly in his second Coke 600 start.

Honoring Capt. David “Seth” Mitchell, a former Marine who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2009, on the windshield banner, Hemric was one of the first cars to make rim-riding work up against the wall, making steady progress throughout the first stage. Hemric passed some strong cars and even worked his way into the top 15 at one point during the opening run after running the fastest laps on the track. He finished stage one in 20th after a late restart.

The speed of the No. 31 continued as daytime gave way to night lights, Hemric driving his ride into the top 10 midway through stage two. Another late caution caused him to get shuffled to 17th when the green-and-white checkered flag flew for the second time.

Hemric held steady in 20th at the beginning of the third stage before gaining two spots to get to 18th when the skies opened. Given Kaulig Racing’s struggles across the board this season, Charlotte should spark optimism for the team as Hemric landed his seventh top 20 of the year. Had the rain held off, this car was even a legitimate contender to reach the top 10.

Erik Jones was another driver who had to climb through the field due to starting outside the top 30. From his 34th starting position, Jones was able to make his way to 19th before the race came to a halt. Representing LCDR Charles Thomas Butler on the windshield banner, Jones had a quiet race overall. He worked his way to 22nd by the end of stage one, hovering in the 18th to 20th positions for the remainder of the race. After returning from a back injury at Darlington Raceway, Jones earned his second consecutive 19th-place result.

Despite finishing where he started in 22nd, Justin Haley deserves a tip of the cap once again. In previous years, the Coke 600 could make people following Rick Ware Racing cringe due to the team’s lack of resources. Now, Haley continues to elevate the program. The improvement was evident when Haley finished stage one in 14th, ahead of the likes of Chris Buescher, Noah Gragson and Joey Logano.

Haley had to pit a second time under the stage break due to a helmet malfunction, leaving him without enough time to recover. Still, he deserved credit for continuing to put the No. 51 in places it has rarely seen in its history at RWR.

Four-time Coke 600 winner Jimmie Johnson made his fifth start of the season in the No. 84. Johnson fell a lap down during stage one, but a caution shortly after allowed him to get back on the lead lap. The seven-time Cup champion never found the pace to move forward, finishing a disappointing 29th. It was surreal seeing Johnson back at one of his former playgrounds, a place he once dominated, and struggle to even stay competitive.

What They’re Saying

Hemric (18th): “Really solid day for this No. 31 Cirkul Chevy team. We fired off really strong and ran laps similar to the leader at times. It’s unfortunate that [the race] was shortened, but I’m really proud of the effort and speed we showed today.”

Haley (22nd): “We had a really strong Ford Mustang Dark Horse this weekend in Charlotte. We’ve been aiming to qualify better and this weekend was a good step for that. The balance in the race was great, we just had some trouble on pit road that led to our finish not being quite as strong as it could’ve been. Proud of the RWR guys for bringing a competitive car again. Lots of momentum for the next one.”

Kaz Grala (34th): “We really struggled with the handling right from the start of the race tonight. By the halfway point, we finally got the balance to a pretty good place, and then it got away from us just a little bit at the very end. We’re on the lead lap, and I think if the race had gone the full distance, we could have rebounded to a good finish. Unfortunately, the race was called short right after our worst stint of the night, so we didn’t get the finish we could have.” 

Honor & Remember

Small Team Scheme of the Week

While Darlington hosted throwback weekend two weeks ago, the Coke 600 summoned even more participation from teams, utilizing specialty schemes to show their patriotism. Gilliland’s car was one of the highlights throughout the field. Honoring fallen Army Sgt. Francisco L. Valle, the AirCompressorStore.com Ford featured stars and stripes across the car in a scheme that truly shined under the lights.

About the author

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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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