Todd Gilliland won’t go so far as to say his NASCAR Cup Series season had a silver lining, but he can admit it certainly changed him.

It was an unconventional season for Gilliland. Set to run another full season with Front Row Motorsports in the No. 38 Ford Mustang, it was revealed before the season-opening Daytona 500 that Zane Smith was going to get a slate of races in the car. Not wanting to be sidelined, Gilliland was left to patch together the season.

Gilliland ran 30 races in his car. Front Row put him in the No. 36 Ford Mustang, its part-time, unchartered car, for the spring Talladega Superspeedway race. Rick Ware fielded Gilliland in the other five races.

Despite the adversity and disruption, Gilliland never complained or sought pity. When all was said and done, it resulted in a career year.

“I don’t know if it was motivation, necessarily,” Gilliland tells RACER. “I feel like I’m going to drive the car as fast as I can and work as hard as I can, but there’s so much more to being a good human being and learning life along the way. This has been a really good point of that.

“Working with two different (organizations) is not a fun thing, but I feel like I’ve learned so much going back and forth. It’s definitely forced me to be more responsible. I’ve talked to more people. Even keeping track of all my stuff – getting the right flights. I know it’s all dumb stuff, but it’s made me a little more responsible and made me work a bit harder.”

The numbers can seem a bit deceiving because Gilliland finished 28th in the championship standings for the second straight year. However, his running position and speed throughout the races were markedly better, spending more time running inside the top 15 (1,479 laps) than he did in 2022 (1,027).

Gilliland ended the year with four top-10 finishes, two more than he earned in his rookie season. To go further, Gilliland’s average starting position and average finishing position also improved (25.8 and 22.0, respectively).

While it might have been two different organizations, Gilliland worked with four different teams. Aside from the group of guys on his No. 38 team that Gilliland is familiar with, there was the No. 36 team put together when Front Row runs the third car, plus he drove both the No. 15 and the No. 51 car in his time with Rick Ware Racing.

Fortunately, he sees working with so many different people as a young driver as a good thing.

“Just getting a bit different perspective of how people do things and their processes,” Gilliland says.

Going from rookie to sophomore in the Cup Series was already going to bring maturity and growth. Gilliland was more prepared to go racing and in his surroundings.

“I always forget how I was at the beginning of (2022),” Gilliland says. “My eyes were wide-open going into the Daytona 500. I did not know what to expect. I was racing against guys that I’d watched forever. And I think even that feeling of being comfortable walking into the driver’s meeting, sitting next to these guys that are superstars of the sport, and just feeling like you semi-belong. It’s not like I’m one of those guys, but having two years now, part of it is kind of self-confidence, but it’s hard to manufacture that. It’s having to go through the reps, a full season, traveling as much as we have, and getting used to all of that.

“It’s probably pretty crazy from the outside to see how much progress I’ve made, I guess, and just feeling comfortable in being around those guys. It’s one of the things that makes me laugh but also sticks out from last year.”

A feeling of belonging, something mental, translated to tangible results for Gilliland.

“I think that goes back to having good leadership in Ryan ,” he says. “Mentally, you have to stay in these things. These races are long and especially now, with the Next Gen car, everyone is so close. It seems if you can execute a clean day that you can, a lot of times, move yourself forward through the whole race and come away with a good finish.

It would be wrong to put the uptick in performance squarely on Gilliland’s shoulders, however. Front Row Motorsports took a step forward as an organization, showing more speed and going to victory lane with Gilliland’s teammate Michael McDowell on the Indianapolis road course. To Gilliland, it felt that each week the ceiling got higher, and the progress being made should have been clear to see. He credited the shop with putting together better cars, having better bodies, and everything from setups to execution being cleaner.

“Ryan, he’s really pushed me,” Gilliland says of his crew chief. “I know he’s really pushed me; that’s what he’s good at. Sometimes, we can put our whole team in an uncomfortable spot, but it’s to be better and keep growing.”

Bergenty and Gilliland are in their first season together, and it’s also Bergenty’s first year as a Cup Series crew chief. But he’s not unfamiliar to Front Row, having been there for a few seasons before the promotion.

“I’ve definitely never had someone like Ryan,” Gilliland admits. “He’s almost like a football coach. I’ve never played football, but that’s what he reminds me of; jumping out at you, pushing you when you don’t know if you need it or not. That’s good. I think as humans, sometimes you can get comfortable and be left behind by not pushing yourself or learning and taking that extra half step.

“It’s been incredible. It’s taken me a little bit to get used and know how to take it but it’s been for the better.”

However, the best feeling for Gilliland has been seeing the results on the racetrack. All of the work is reflected in the numbers.

“Sometimes it doesn’t really matter how good you run if you still come away with the same finish every week,” Gilliland says. “I think that’s one thing my team has done a good job of this year, is that even when we don’t have the car we need, we’re getting better at figuring out how to make the most of it.”

Gilliland is eager to do more in 2024. He jokes that going into year three means he’ll get out of his sophomore slump, but there was no slump to Gilliland’s season. What’s no joke is the linear progression that he is building.

“Sometimes, it’s going to be tough to see the results because you’re not always going to get them,” he says. “But I think the speed and pushing our ceiling higher of our potential. On the days that aren’t our best, coming away with a decent finish.

“Being a better leader, too, off the track. that’s my biggest goal. Watching Michael around the shop each week and how he operates shows to me why he’s been so good recently and has been getting better every year. And on the track, make the most of every day.”