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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - No one, much less 16-year-old Todd Gilliland, could have imagined what 2016 had in store for him.
The native of California who now resides in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, put together an incredible season driving the No. 16 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota for Bill McAnally Racing that included seven victories in NASCAR K&N Pro Series competition, six of which came in the West division, and the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship.
“It was very incredible to have that kind of success,” Gilliland said. “We set our expectations to maybe win one or two races out West. To win six was really crazy and we definitely never thought we’d be in contention to win the championship or to even win it. It was definitely better than anything we expected.”
Gilliland started the season off with a bang, winning his first three races combined between the East and West divisions at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway and California’s Irwindale Speedway and Kern County Raceway Park. Those three victories along with his first West division victory at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 12, 2015 came in his first four career K&N Pro Series starts, matching a record set by legendary racer Dan Gurney.
“It definitely gave me confidence, going to the race track and winning my first four races,” Gilliland said. “It gave me more confidence when we were going to the race track that we could go out there and compete for wins every weekend.”
As it turned out, that was just the start of Gilliland’s record breaking year.
Gilliland after winning at Irwindale and Kern County, Gilliland took firm control of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship until the sixth race of the season at California’s Sonoma Raceway on June 25. He got caught up in a crash that day and finished a season worst 24th, which dropped him behind Ryan Partridge in the championship standings.
Not to be deterred, Gilliland and Bill McAnally Racing quickly bounced back. Gilliland and company rattled off three consecutive victories at Idaho’s Stateline Speedway, Iowa Speedway and Evergreen Speedway in Washington to reclaim the championship lead.
From then on, Gilliland remained in command of the standings.
“That put us behind a little bit in the points and everything for the season,” Gilliland said about the Sonoma crash. “Then after that to go win the next three races was a big turning point in our season.”
Gilliland would add one more victory, a triumph at Idaho’s Meridian Speedway on Sept. 24, before comfortably locking up the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship with an eighth-place finish on Oct. 15 at All-American Speedway in Roseville, Calif.
In doing so, he set a number of records.
Gilliland became the youngest champion in the history of the NASCAR national or touring series at 16 years, 5 months. Gilliland’s six victories matched the win total posted by Greg Pursley (2011), Brendan Gaughan (2001) and Doug George (1995) as the most in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West since Jimmy Insolo won nine in 1978. He also joins Scott Lynch (2003) and Lance Hooper (1996) as the only drivers to win both the Sunoco Rookie of the Year title and the championship in the same year. Oh, and he also joined his grandfather as a NASCAR champion. Butch Gilliland won the 1997 West crown.
Gilliland gave a large portion of the credit to Bill McAnally Racing, a veteran race team that has now won seven K&N West championships.
“I knew that they had a great team setup for me and it definitely helped having championship people around me to get us there,” Gilliland.
With 2016 now largely behind him, Gilliland has set lofty goals for himself in 2017. He recently announced plans to pursue both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West championships with Bill McAnally Racing, a feat that, if accomplished, would make Gilliland the only driver in history to win both titles in the same year.
The largest challenge, Gilliland said, will be learning all the new race tracks on the K&N East schedule that he’s never raced on before. Even so, Gilliland had the same challenge this year in the K&N West division and won six times, so his confidence is high that he’ll be able to thrive under pressure again in 2017.
“I think I’m more looking forward to going to all these new race tracks. I mean its definitely going to be a challenge for our whole team, but I feel like we all enjoy going to new places for the first time and we did pretty well this year and that is what we plan to do next year.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Gilliland said. “Being able to win the K&N West championship this year and then going out there and trying to win it again and adding those East races will only help our program and help me. I think we’ll be in contention for both of them.”
Todd Gilliland (left) takes a selfie with his fellow teenage NASCAR champions Cayden Lapcevich (second from left) and Justin Haley (right) along with singer-songwriter Ben Rector at the 2016 NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards in Charlotte, North Carolina, earlier this month. NASCAR via Getty Images