Eighteen months ago, Landon Cassill was wondering where his NASCAR career was going to take him. After winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2008, he was on the outside looking in for the 2009 season. He was looking down the barrel of becoming an obscure trivia question on NASCAR trivial pursuit. Months went by and there was not a word about Landon Cassill on any major media outlets.
Fortunately, Cassill did not disappear. He was able to continue attending races as an employee of Hendrick Motorsports and remain visible at the track. After eleven months of being out of NASCAR, Cassill’s phone rang. It was James Finch on the other end, he had recently released Mike Bliss from the Phoenix Racing Nationwide team and replaced him with a mix of Sprint Cup drivers. Due to the NASCAR Sprint Cup series being in Martinsville that weekend, Finch was in need of a driver. He decided to give Cassill a chance to drive his Nationwide Series car in the final race at Memphis Motorsports Park. After running up front early in the race, Cassill had a midrace spin. “We had one of the best cars and Brendan Gaughan got in the back of me.” He worked his way back to a hard fought tenth place finish. Cassill made a statement in that race, showing team owners that despite eleven months of obscurity, he had no intentions of moving back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and driving late models for the rest of his career. “I never really stopped digging.” Cassill said, “You kinda get down but I never gave up. I’m glad I didn’t because now it’s turned the other way and I’m starting to get more opportunities. It’s all about hard work and how bad you want it.”
As 2010 was approaching, things were looking optimistic for Cassill. James Finch was looking to fill his Nationwide car with a full-time Nationwide driver. JR Motorsports had recently hired Danica Patrick to run a handful of races but wanted to run the car full-time to keep it locked into races and would need a driver for those races. By all appearances, Landon Cassill was about to have his choice of Nationwide series cars. However, one by one, each opportunity Cassill had was filled by other drivers who brought Sponsors and/or money to the table. First James Buescher was announced as the driver of the Phoenix Racing Nationwide Series team. Then, after Cassill was originally announced to race Danica Patrick’s GoDaddy car for several races, the schedule was cut back to just three races. He was left to wonder if he was about to be watching races from the spotters stand again.
Luckily for Cassill, James Finch still had his phone number, but this time Finch had an open seat in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car! While not glamorous, Phoenix Racing needed a driver who could get up on the wheel for one lap and get the car in the show. Cassill did just that and started his first career Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway. Other teams took notice of Cassill’s ability and began to call. By the end of 2010, Cassill had started races for Phoenix Racing, TRG Motorsports and Gunselman Motorsports. In 18 attempts, Cassill only missed two races: Atlanta where Kevin Conway got in on owners points (7/10 of a second slower than Cassill) and Talladega (where it is all about the car).
A self-described nerd, Cassill attributed his successes qualifying for races to sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time. Cassill has been a member of the iRacing community since 2008 and practices several hours at the upcoming track each week. “I use it (iRacing) to hone my qualifying skills.” Cassill said, “I get prepared mentally and visually for where I’m gonna go. It’s also good for your race skills and race craft. Running iRacing races whether its late model, legends cars or trucks helps with your race craft.”
As a thank you, Finch offered Cassill a shot at winning his first Nationwide race. With no sponsor on the car, Phoenix Racing and Landon Cassill arrived at Daytona for Speedweeks 2011. Most rookie drivers are hired knowing that they will make several mistakes along with a few good runs, but for Landon Cassill, that was not an option. Cassill must make the most of every chance. When qualifying day rolled around, he posted the second fastest qualifying time and was surrounded by Sprint Cup drivers on the grid.
Going into the race, Cassill had never experienced the “two car tango” stating that “(I) did not practice it what so ever”. It did not take long for Cassill to learn the tango, however. He spent much of the race working with Sprint Cup drivers Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart. Early in the race, it was evident that Cassill did not have the experience the Cup drivers did. When they made the swap, he and his drafting partner would fall deep into the field. By the end of the race, Cassill looked more like a Cup driver. He and Tony Stewart made a key swap with just two laps to go that was vital to Stewart winning the race “Tony wanted me to push him.” said Cassill, “He was overheating so we pretty much had to switch or we wouldn’t have had the steam to make it up to the front. It was just wild and crazy!” In the end, Cassill came home with a third place finish and for the first time in his career, led the NASCAR Nationwide Series points. “It was a great ride and we accomplished what we needed to accomplish. Hopefully something will come out of it as the season goes on.”
Looking to the remainder of the 2011 season, Cassill hopes he will get more opportunities at either the Sprint Cup Series or the Nationwide Series. He has some deals lined up but due to sponsorship issues, being competitive will an uphill battle. He will be running a part-time Sprint Cup schedule with Germain Racing in the 60 car and Phoenix Racing in the 09 car. He’ll also be running some Nationwide races for Phoenix Racing. “Whenever they (Phoenix Racing) need me in the Nationwide Series I’m pretty much there for them.”
Cassill also plans to continue using the iRacing simulation to fine tune his technique and ensure he can continue to get the opportunity to race in the Sprint Cup series. In fact, due to logistical issues, he was unable to fly back to North Carolina between the Phoenix and Las Vegas races to practice on the Simulation. He posted a message on the iRacing forum looking for help. “I reached out to anyone in the iRacing forum to see if someone would let me come over to their house. I met a guy named Doug (Nelson) who is gonna let me come over to his house and practice iRacing.”
One thing is clear: Landon Cassill wants to be a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver and he is not going to let a little economic downturn keep him from his dream. His persistence kept him in the game and caught the eye of James Finch, at what seemed like an insignificant race at Memphis in 2009, it later turned out to be a big deal. It was the race that kept Landon Cassill’s career alive. “James Finch has done a lot for me. He’s given me many opportunities when nobody else would and he’s really more or less kept me in the sport.”