BRISTOL, Tenn. — Growing up racing dirt modifieds, Justin Haley has plenty of dirt racing experience. Todd Gilliland, though a winner in the Craftsman Truck Series on dirt at Knoxville Raceway last summer, does not have that same experience, but he jokes with his Front Row Motorsports team that he’s a dirt “ringer.”
During Speedweeks this season, Haley won three of the five dirt modified races he competed in at Volusia Speedway Park. In the other two races, he finished second and third, respectively.
Whenever Haley can race on dirt, he feels comfortable. And after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld the No. 31 team’s L2 penalty last week and gave just 25 points back to the team, he needed a good run.
In a stacked qualifying heat on Saturday on the Bristol dirt that had six drivers with a multitude of dirt racing experience in it, Haley dropped from fourth to sixth — last of the drivers with experience. He didn’t think the No. 31 car was strong for the main event, noting he “dropped like a rock.”
But when the green flag waved on Sunday evening, Haley progressed forward immediately. Despite starting in 25th position, the No. 31 car earned its first stage points of the season in the opening stage by finishing ninth.
“I was glad to see I still know how to dirt race; it had been a few months,” Haley said.
Gilliland, meanwhile, started 15th after gaining three positions in his qualifying heat on Saturday. He was involved in the opening wreck of the race on lap 10, when Bubba Wallace got loose and contact from Joey Logano turned the No. 23 car around. Gilliland was an innocent bystander and hit the outside wall.
Haley earned two additional stage points in the second stage, while Gilliland moved up six positions from 21st to 15th. At the end of the stage, Ryan Bergenty, crew chief of the No. 38 Ford, elected to have Gilliland stay out to get track position — something he would keep the rest of the night.
In a final stage that had a handful of cautions, Gilliland restarted on the front row multiple times. By the end of the race, he got loose and dropped to eighth, taking home his best finish of 2023.
“Good strategy call; we got in a bunch of wrecks throughout the night,” Gilliland noted. “Survived them all and a good job by my team to have a good racecar. At the end, we were struggling pretty bad. That’s racing sometimes on a dirt track. The track goes through such big swings and we’re still trying to learn it all.”
Haley was one of the drivers who passed Gilliland late in the race and catapulted to sixth in the final rundown. That, too, is his best finish of the season and a much needed top-10 result after having finishes outside the top 20 in five of the first seven races this season.
“It’s been a tough year for us overall,” Haley said. “We’ve been open with our Cup program not being exactly where we want it, but days like this and weeks like this and being able to rebound after the past few weeks with the crew chief who is our stay-at-home engineer is pretty cool. We don’t have the depth as a lot of these guys.”
Even with the sixth-place finish, Haley still called it a “devastating week” after Kaulig Racing didn’t get its 100 championship owner points and 10 playoff points to the No. 31 car and Haley overturned.
In the last month of racing, not many drivers have been hotter than Gilliland. Dating back to Atlanta, the No. 38 team has four straight top-15 finishes, two of which have been top 10s. That matches his total from his rookie campaign last year.
“Looking at the season, we circled this as a strong portion of races for us,” he stated. “Saying it could be a strong portion and actually doing it are two different things. I’m proud of what we’ve done the last couple of weeks.”
Gilliland’s strong performances began at Atlanta Motor Speedway three weeks ago, his first of six races with Rick Ware Racing, as FRM elected to put Zane Smith in the No. 38 car for six races.
The Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway next weekend where Gilliland finished a respectable 13th last fall. Haley hopes to improve on his 27th-place finish.