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From Nationwide points lead to uncertain future

February 23, 2011, David Caraviello,

After season opener, Cassill offers impromptu plea on behalf of young drivers

As the Daytona 500 came to an end, Landon Cassill cheered for Trevor Bayne as if he had a personal stake in the driver of the No. 21 car -- which, in a way, he did. It wasn't just because the two are good friends who attend Bible study together every other week. It wasn't just because both are drivers in their early 20s who had already experienced upheaval and disappointment in their careers. It was because if a young, relative unknown like Bayne would win NASCAR's biggest race, then maybe somebody might give Cassill a second look, too.

"I need Trevor to win," Cassill said. "I love Bobby Labonte and I love [Travis] Kvapil and [David] Gilliland and the older drivers. I love those guys. But I need Trevor to win, not them. I need these teams to look at Trevor and say, 'Wow, I didn't know these kids were capable of this, where's the next Trevor? Who is he?' I need a kid like him to win. I root for him and Joey Logano every single week. I need these teams that have the decision to put a driver in the car, not based on sponsorship and not based on who's bringing money, I need them to be like, let's look at a young driver this time instead of an older driver, because we just got our butts kicked by a young driver. So hopefully that will help."

"I could probably find some team with a backup car that I can go start and park, but I don't want to put myself in the Nationwide race just to say that I'm going into the next race as the points leader. That's not the point."


That's the hope Cassill is clinging to, particularly after last weekend, where he nearly pulled a mini-shocker of his own. Driving the No. 1 car of superspeedway specialist James Finch, the 21-year-old finished third behind Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer in the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, and -- as a result of the new NASCAR rule that allows drivers to accrue championship points in only one national series -- will carry the points lead into this Saturday's event at Phoenix. But likely no further, given that the points leader doesn't have a ride this weekend. Finch is fielding his Nationwide car for only a handful of races this season, and Phoenix isn't on the list.

Which is why Cassill used his best career Nationwide finish and the ensuing media center appearance to offer an impromptu plea on behalf of young drivers who are struggling to find rides in a series where sponsors often want bankable Sprint Cup names behind the wheel. "I've been with good sponsors before. Unfortunately, sometimes that bucket doesn't stay full of water. It just kind of drains out, and the sponsors will go for the older drivers," he said Saturday.

"You look at someone like Josh Wise and Michael McDowell, you know, they're just like me, they're hustling every week. It is tough, though. Sometimes it's venting to each other, sometimes it's strategizing with each other. I'll be honest, I had two or three, I can think of, full-time ride opportunities in the Truck and Nationwide Series this year that were passed over for veteran drivers. You know, it's tough."

The next day brought the stunning Daytona 500 victory by Bayne, whose own career was once nearly derailed when a planned ride at Dale Earnhardt Inc. fell apart because of a lack of sponsorship. In an era where sponsor deals can be slow to materialize, not even a win in NASCAR's biggest race can change things overnight -- Bayne is still scheduled to run a schedule of 18 total Sprint Cup events for the sponsor-limited Wood Brothers, and said Tuesday his Roush Fenway Nationwide entry remained "a blank car." So imagine how difficult it can be for a driver like Cassill, who has never run more than 19 races in a season, and is trying to milk a surprise third-place Nationwide finish and the series points lead for everything he can.

"It's all about how I do. It's all about performance. It's all about showing up, being there, being serious week in and week out," he said Tuesday. "I can't have a bad week, because I don't have anything secure. I don't have a steady paycheck. My paycheck comes from how I do on the race track. I feel probably like those guys used to feel like in the '70s and '80s when they raced for their food. It's a little bit of what I'm doing. Even when you're making money and making races, you can't get used to it, because you could go four weeks in a row and not make races. It's just all about showing up every week, being prepared every week, qualifying that thing every Friday, and if I'm racing, making the best of the opportunity and doing it all right at once so you have something to stand on next week."

Right now, though, every next week is an unknown. Cassill will be in the Germain Racing No. 60 car on the Sprint Cup side at Phoenix, but that vehicle is outside the top 35 in owner points and will have to make the race on speed. He knows he's not entitled to that ride, and if he misses a few races in a row, could very well be out of it. On the Nationwide Series, he's hoping his Daytona performance will convince Finch to add a few more races at restrictor-plate venues, and that something shakes loose for this weekend.

"I could probably find some team with a backup car that I can go start and park, but I don't want to put myself in the Nationwide race just to say that I'm going into the next race as the points leader. That's not the point," he said. "... Yeah, I'm the points leader now and it's cool, but I have to kind of stick to my original agenda, which is digging hard on the opportunities that I have to kind of try to come up with a bigger opportunity -- whether it's a sponsor that puts up some money to make the races and the equipment better, or if it's an open seat that puts me in a full-time ride. You guys [in the media] don't see it from the driver's point of view, but I have to set goals and an agenda and a plan on how I want to make it in the sport, and I can't deviate from that too much. Obviously my first race with that one opportunity this year was a success, but I don't want to start and park some crappy Nationwide car just because I'm the points leader and, oh my gosh, I have to go collect points."

"Daytona was so much pressure ... I can't afford to run 50 laps and be crashed, because it does nothing for my opportunity. There is a lot of pressure every single week to do everything right all at the same time. "


Keeping to that agenda, though, can be difficult when so much is undecided. Unfortunately for Cassill, it's a situation he's become accustomed to. The Iowa native was signed by Hendrick Motorsports to be a test driver when he was 17, and still too young to compete at NASCAR's national level. He ran six Nationwide races for Hendrick after turning 18, and then was moved to JR Motorsports when Rick Hendrick consolidated his Nationwide efforts with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s organization. Cassill started 19 races in 2008 in a No. 5 car he shared with six other drivers including Earnhardt and Mark Martin, posting five top-10s and winning Nationwide Rookie of the Year honors. But the situation never really clicked. Now he battles the perception that he was a driver who had a chance at Hendrick and couldn't make it work.

"That's actually the tough thing -- you put the Hendrick stamp on it, and it looks like wow, he was with Hendrick, he should have made it. Well, I was their test driver. I still am their test driver. I've got four championship rings. But I didn't race for Hendrick Motorsports, I raced for JR Motorsports. And it was tough over there. I probably don't fit the JR Motorsports mold as well as some other people who have been over there," he said.

"It was a tough battle, especially running a part-time schedule. The cars had just moved over there, and we were switching stuff over ... and it was two completely different mindsets, and it all doesn't mesh the way you'd think it would. I was a little bit of a guinea pig going out there the first time. And what made it tough was, I was looking at my teammate Brad Keselowski who got to run every race, and he was with the 88 team that had been established and had been together for so long, and I was with a team that had just moved across town. It was tough, and I learned a lot with Brad, but I just didn't get the repetitive seat time that I needed."

These days, he leans on help from others. The Daytona Nationwide ride was, he said, a "gift" from Finch for piloting his Sprint Cup entry five times last year. Thanks to his position as test driver, he added that Hendrick still flies him to the race track, and takes care of his travel expenses and licensing fees. But it can make for a strange existence. He's had 33 career starts on the Nationwide tour, less than a full season. When he walked into the Nationwide rookie meeting last weekend at Daytona, series director Joe Balash looked at a guy who's been around NASCAR since 2007 and asked -- what are you doing here? Turned out, Cassill had never before competed on the 2.5-mile track. Amazed, Balash rifled through some papers. "Oh," he responded. I guess you haven't."

Which made Cassill's performance that much more impressive. Cassill spun behind an accident just 15 laps into the race, but drafted back to the front with some help from former teammate Keselowski, and then gave Stewart the push he needed to win by seven-thousandths of a second. For someone in Cassill's situation, career advancement demands a delicate balance -- racing hard enough to prove yourself, but going easy enough to preserve the equipment and whatever shot you might have of racing again the next week. It's a mindset that runs counter to a driver's hard-charging nature, but one that also might get him noticed down the road.

"As race car drivers growing up, racing your dad's late model or having a full-time ride or a full-time sponsor somewhere, you're so used to being able to go out and race hard," he said. "Maybe you got loose and bounced it off the fence and it was, 'Shoot, we didn't win this week. Dang it, onto the next week.' Well, it's not like that for me. I bounce it off the wall, there is no onto the next week. Now I'm struggling to still convince people that I'm worth the car the next week. Daytona was so much pressure ... I can't afford to run 50 laps and be crashed, because it does nothing for my opportunity. There is a lot of pressure every single week to do everything right all at the same time."

This past Saturday, though, he was able to do just that. Will he have another opportunity this week? The Nationwide Series points leader waits by the telephone, wondering the same thing himself.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.