It was a cold day in March when David Gilliland stood in the stands and watched Nextel Cup and Busch Series cars turn practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It'll be a warm August evening when Gilliland straps inside a Robert Yates Racing Ford for Saturday's running of the Sharpie 500.
What a difference five months makes, indeed.
In March, Gilliland had hoped to race his Clay Andrews Racing car in the Busch Series race, but the team chose to skip the race. Gilliland, though, figured visiting the track couldn't hurt for the future.
After all, if things had worked differently, he might have been trying to qualify for this weekend's Busch race at the track.
"So I decided to go and I watched and stood in the corner for Busch and Cup practice and saw how guys were coming into the corner and trying to stay on the bottom, and coming off the corner," Gilliland said. "I stayed and watched all that, so I'm very, very glad that I did that looking back on it now. At least I have been there and watched and this weekend I'll be there to race."
Since that cold day in Bristol, Tenn., Gilliland's gone on to a much-celebrated Busch win at Kentucky Speedway in June. That opened up plenty of eyes in the Cup garage, including those of Doug Yates, who co-owns the team with his father, Robert.
Enamored with Gilliland's potential, they signed him to replace Elliott Sadler in the No. 38 Ford Fusion. A practice crash sent him to a backup car for his Yates debut at Michigan, and a blown right front tire led to a 38th-place finish in the GFS Marketplace 400.
Gilliland said he's always wanted to race at Bristol, even though he knows it might not be the best place for just his third Cup start. Still, he plans on learning as much as he can, which is basically the goal for the rest of the season.
"He gave me some good advice," Gilliland said of Harvick. "We raced at a track back home called Mesa Marin and he said to just think of it as a big Mesa Marin. That place had 16 or 18 degrees of banking and Bristol has quite a bit more than that, but he kind of drove it the same. He said that what it took to make your car good at Mesa is gonna take just a little more to make it good at Bristol, so we're excited about that.
"I took the tape home from the spring race and watched that and the thing is that pit road is tight. Everybody has warned me about that and about getting onto pit road and into your pit stall because it's very tight. I've been practicing pit stops every day with the guys here at the shop and working on coming in on an angle, which is kind of how it's gonna be there. That's gonna be big with track position. If you get caught up in the pits, you lose track position and it's tough to make up there, so there are a lot of little things like that."
It was the Kentucky win that set the stage for Gilliland's rapid ascension to Cup. Having heard from a friend in the sport for years that the driver reminded him of Dale Earnhardt, Doug Yates started paying close attention.
Seeing him win was believing.
"I started watching him, and every practice session he'd be at the top of the sheet. Every race he competed in, very competitive in, with, really, just hand-built equipment, not a big organization behind [him]," Yates said. "Really, the true test of drivers is when a driver can get in average equipment and make it look better than average, [then] you've got a good driver right there.
"After the Kentucky race, when he won, I called my dad up and said, 'We just got our new driver,' and he thought I was talking about Stephen [Leicht, who runs for RYR in the Busch Series], and I said, 'No, Stephen finished 10th.' I said, 'No, I'm talking about the guy who won the race.' We started talking after that."
Gilliland's hiring coincided with crew chief Todd Parrott's return to an organization for which he led Dale Jarrett to the 1999 Winston Cup championship. Parrott left the team only to return, and he's anxious to help RYR return to contention.
He said he thinks working with a driver who has been a crew chief can only help. Gilliland helped his father, Butch, to a Winston West title while serving as his crew chief. Gilliland's time in the pits hopefully means communicating with Parrott should be easier than it would be for most first-year Cup drivers.
"He understands the car, he understands the chassis. What changes do," Parrott said. "If you change a spring, he knows what it's going to do, he knows what he needs to feel. So, yeah, that is a big plus to have that in our pocket.
"[And] he's hungry, he's willing to win. Getting Robert Yates Racing back where it belongs, on top, winning races, being consistent [is my goal]. Winning races isn't in my thoughts right now. It would be great, but I think if we get in the top 15, that's where we've got to be [right now]."
Gilliland, meanwhile, finds himself in the middle of a dream come true. He may not know what to expect on the track this weekend, but he knows it's certainly better than watching from the stands while others race around the track.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.