CHARLOTTE, N.C. – For a 17-year-old, Todd Gilliland was in a familiar situation when he took the stage at the Charlotte Convention Center at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night.
He had, after all, done this all before. Just one year ago.
“Ever since I was little, all I wanted to do was drive a race car,” Gilliland said. “When I got that chance to do that for Bill McAnally Racing, I really wanted to win him a championship. And now I’m here giving my speech for my second year in a row; 2017 has been a dream season.”
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Gilliland wasn’t the only familiar face honored at the NASCAR Home Tracks Awards, officially receiving their NASCAR championship rings and trophies. Doug Coby received the hardware for his fifth NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour championship, Lee Pulliam picked up his fourth NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national championship trophy and Mexico’s Abraham Calderón took home his second NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series title trophy.
They were joined by first-time champions Harrison Burton (NASCAR K&N Pro Series East), Alon Day (NASCAR Whelen Euro Series) and Alex Labbe (NASCAR Pinty’s Series).
Whether they came from Israel and Quebec or North Carolina and Virginia, there was a common theme that was echoed throughout the night of celebration.
Dreams realized. And the support behind chasing the drivers chasing them.
“This season has created so many memories that will stay with me my whole life,” said Burton. “So much has gone into winning this championship, and it’s awesome to just slow down and celebrate it with my team, friends and family.”
“What a journey,” said Day. “To end up here tonight as a NASCAR champion. Who would have thought an unknown driver from a small country in the Middle East would one day wind up being a NASCAR champion. That achievement never would have been reached without the help of so many people.”
It was a night that celebrated the future of NASCAR and toasted the historic achievements of NASCAR veterans.
A year after becoming the youngest champion in NASCAR touring or national series history, Gilliland became the first driver to win back-to-back NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championships since Mike Duncan in 2004-05. He nearly became the first driver to sweep the K&N Pro Series East and West titles, but Burton overcame an eight-point gap by winning the East season finale. In the process, he broke Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Joey Logano’s record as the youngest champion in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East history.
Both Gilliland and Burton also ran several NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races in 2017 as they look to move up the racing ladder.
Canadian Labbe is also eying a move up, but first he had unfinished business in Canada. After a disappointing end to 2016, the 24-year-old bounced back with a decisive 2017 campaign that saw him finish sixth or better in all but the finale en route to the Pinty’s Series title – the national stock car racing championship in Canada.
“It means a lot — I’ve been working on it for a long, long time,” said Labbe. “To finally get that championship, to get the trophy at the end of the year: It’s a dream. It’s something that I’m going to have with me all my life.”
Likewise, Calderón took home his country’s stock car national championship. While he won his first title in 2014 without winning a race, he had a series-high five victories this year, including four in a six-race summer stretch to take command of the series lead.
“For me and my team, it’s something huge — it means a lot — to be here celebrating our second NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series championship. It’s something we’ll never forget,” said Calderón. “I remember the last race in Mexico City, it was a stunning event. I’d like to explain with words what it felt like crossing the finish line but I cannot. It’s something that just flows through your body and makes you feel alive. It was just really, really amazing.”
Day finished second in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series in 2015 and third in 2016 before a magical run in 2017. He made his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup debut at Sonoma, and then won three of the final four races of the Whelen Euro season to edge two-time champion Anthony Kumpen.
For Coby, though, the year started like a nightmare. He was involved in wrecks in his first two races, and four races into the season he was still 51 points out of the championship lead. The Milford, Connecticut, driver didn’t mind that everybody was looking to knock him off the perch.
“I’d rather be the guy with the bull’s eye on his back than the one swinging at it,” said Coby, who scored top fives in 10 of the last 12 races to earn his fourth straight title and fifth in the last six years.
Coby joined NASCAR Hall of Famers Jerry Cook and Richie Evans, NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Mike Stefanik along with Tony Hirschman Jr., as the only drivers in NASCAR Modified history with five or more titles.
“I’m just racing against who I’m racing against and doing thing best I can do in this era,” Coby said.
“It’s a testament to what you’ve done in the sport,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told Coby. “When you look back at the series and who can represent the sport the best, (the Modifieds are) where legends are made. You’ve heard Doug talk about just concentrating on the present. But it’s fitting we’re here in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. With five championships, you’re well on your way to an historic career.”
Likewise, Pulliam moved closer to one of short track’s indelible records.
Piling up 155 Late Model wins in 290 starts since 2011, the North Carolina native tied Philip Morris for second most national titles. He’s one behind NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, the late Larry Phillips. Phillips won five titles between 1989-96.
“Before you become legendary, you’ve got to be successful,” Helton told Pulliam. “I think you’ve laid the foundation on becoming one of the legends in NASCAR.”
Pulliam won 14 times at Myrtle Beach Speedway on his way to the track and South Carolina titles. He finished with 19 wins, 36 top fives and 43 top 10s in 45 starts at eight different tracks across the southeast.
“You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but it gets me every time,” said Pulliam. “I told my wife in 2017, I was going as hard as I can to win national championship number four. As Michelangelo once said, the greatest danger for most of us is not from setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and hitting our mark.
“Chasing a national championship requires help and sacrifice from so many people. Many nights we saw the sun come up, with no sleep. My guys never gave up. We fought, clawed and battled as a team to accomplish this. This championship was won by people banding together and not stopping until the goal was accomplished.”
Pulliam noted that at 29 years old, he feels he has plenty of racing left.
“And I think I’ve got more titles in me,” said Pulliam.
The championship car owners and crew chiefs were also recognized Friday night.
There were plenty of other trophies handed out, too.
Missouri’s Cody Jolly (Division II), Ontario’s Eric Yorke (Division III), Michigan’s Cole Roelofs (Division IV) and Iowa’s Dustin Thompson (Division V) joined Pulliam in receiving their NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national titles. The night got underway with the awarding of 34 U.S. state and Canadian province championships, along with 59 NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Division I track champion trophies.
In addition to the championship awards, each series rookie of the year was honored. Calvin Carroll (NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour), Derek Kraus (NASCAR K&N Pro Series West) and Chase Purdy (NASCAR K&N Pro Series East) were the Sunoco Rookies of the Year in their respective series; Adam Martin (NASCAR Pinty’s Series) and Mitch Keeter (NASCAR Whelen All-American Series) received their Josten’s Rookie of the Year for their series; and Stienes Longin was awarded the Junior “Jerome Sarran” Trophy by the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series as the series’ top young driver. Enrique Baca was the top rookie in the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series.
Ryan Vargas, another rising star who is moving from Late Models in California to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East next year as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and Rev Racing, won the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award for the second straight year. The award is given to the top performing minority or female driver in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series.