CHARLOTTE, N.C. - There have been times this year that David Gilliland couldn't help but wonder if he was in over his head, that leaving California for a NASCAR career was maybe a bad idea.
Gilliland was chasing his dream when he left a storied West Coast racing career behind to give the big leagues a shot. It wasn't necessarily his best shot - driving for a startup team that didn't have a sponsor or the funds needed to run a full Busch Series schedule - but it was his only shot.
Once in North Carolina, Gilliland's welcome to the heart of NASCAR country was far from warm. He missed the first race he tried to qualify for, mustered only a best of 29th in the four events he did make, then failed to make the cut last month in Charlotte.
He'd been beaten up by the NASCAR heavyweights, and his confidence was pretty close to shattered.
"Mentally, when you pull into the garage and park next to the big teams and the Cup teams, it just drains you," Gilliland said Monday. "Then we missed the race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, and it was about as low as I've ever felt in my life. But we just dug down there and used it to make us stronger."
Did he ever.
Gilliland pulled off what many are calling the biggest upset in Busch Series history by winning at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night. In doing so, he became the first non-Nextel Cup driver to win a Busch event in 18 races since November.
When he headed toward Victory Lane, he was greeted on pit road by crew members from practically every team.
"I've been doing a lot of pinching myself just to make sure its real the past two days," Gilliland said. "It's really a huge accomplishment, just a dream come true for me."
Eventually, someone was going to break the stranglehold that Nextel Cup drivers currently have on the Busch Series. It just wasn't supposed to be Gilliland.
Winner of some 70 races in smaller series, the 30-year-old made a huge leap when he decided in January to drive a Chevrolet for Clay Andrews Racing.
It was a new team, and money was stretched so thin that their goal was to make it to about half of the 35 races this season. The crew builds its own motors, and the team has only three cars.
"You come into this deal, and you're at the lowest of the low - the lowest on the totem pole you can be," he said. "It takes some time to figure out that you cannot just come in and open up a team and start buying parts and go racing. You think that you can, but then you quickly realize that it just doesn't work that way."