DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: On paper, a 23rd-place finish doesn’t jump off the page as an outstanding result in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But when you’re running inside the top 15 in the Daytona 500, and you make a move to get inside the top 10, that finish means a bold move didn’t pay off — not that you weren’t in the hunt.
Such was the case for Cedar Rapids native Landon Cassill, who ran inside the top 20 and around 15th most of the day in Sunday’s (Monday in Manila) Daytona 500. An aging Daytona International Speedway, combined with a warm day and a bunch of ill-handling racecars, made passing incredibly difficult.
Cassill gave it a shot on the final lap, didn’t get help and came home 23rd behind winner Denny Hamlin. That didn’t diminish his excitement with how his car worked throughout the day, nor how he worked with his crew in his first race with Front Row Motorsports.
“We had a really good car in the draft — I felt like one of the best handling cars in the draft. We just need a little more raw speed to make aggressor moves,” Cassill said. “But as good as the car handled, it allowed me to stay in the position I needed to stay in, as long as the right person was behind me. I was really proud in the closing five laps of the race, I was able to make some aggressive moves and get up inside the top 15,” he said.
“I felt like there was one move I could make that could get me inside the top 10. [Jamie McMurray] kind of forced my hand on that move. I wasn’t sure I was going to make that move. I thought he was going to push me, but he kind of faked me out, hung me out to dry and no one went with me. It knocked me back outside the top 20. But I’m really proud of how this car ran today,” Cassill added.
Throughout the course of the race, Cassill’s communication with his crew chief Donnie Wingo and spotter Tony Raines never let on any frustration or anxiety.
The team made just a few minor adjustments in his handful of pit stops, but all remained upbeat about their progress. At one point, Cassill even came over the radio and said, “I think we have the best handling car out here.”
Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas had a stranglehold on the front of the pack, and very few passes for the lead occurred. That wasn’t exclusive to the front, either. With how the handling went away on most cars, completing passes became more and more difficult. Cassill was most excited after the race about how his No. 38 Ford was able to be at its best when everyone was on old tires and sliding around.
“Man, I think this pavement is wearing out and I think the cars are sliding around more and more. It’s turning into more and more of a handling race,” Cassill said. “It’s just really hard to complete a pass. Handling is so important as the run goes on, and that was really cool to have to focus on how your car is driving. Even then, you really had to have someone go with you to pass,” he said.
“There were moments in the race where cars were sliding around enough, I kind of felt like I was at Michigan, where you roll out of the throttle because you have to handle in the corner, but you’ve got to be lined up for a run down the straightaway,” Cassill said.
Track position then became the name of the game. Cassill could never seem to get it and as a result, wasn’t in a better position at the end to springboard himself into a more aggressive spot.
He said if he had track position at some point, he’s confident the No. 38 Ford would’ve been up there the rest of the way.
“If we could’ve restarted inside the top 10, we would have never fallen out of the top 10,” Cassill said. “Because my car handled so good, all I would’ve had to do was just block like crazy for the first 10 laps on new tires, and once the tires wore out a little bit, I would’ve been able to hold my position easily.”
In the end, it was a debut both Cassill and Front Row Motorsports (FRM) were hoping for.
Maybe the final result won’t have the finish they wanted, but with how Cassill and the team worked together, his confidence is high. Signing with FRM was reaffirmed as a big step forward for him based on how the Daytona 500 played out.
They can live with 23rd if it means Cassill made an aggressive move that just didn’t work out.
“I’m really proud. I feel like we did a great job,” Cassill said. “Tony Raines, my spotter, did a fantastic job. I’m glad we got 500 miles in, I’m glad we raced up front. I feel like it was a confidence boost for me going into the season and kind of a weight off my shoulders to come to a superspeedway and run like I always run at superspeedways, and that’s running up front. I’m really happy with that,” he added.