It is Cassill’s second-consecutive Cup Series last-place finish.
Following their Lap 19 exit from the Daytona 500, Cassill and the Hillman Racing team faced another peculiar on-track challenge. Having timed in 29th and 30th in Thursday’s two test sessions, then 23rd in Friday’s opening practice session, Cassill looked to turn in a fast lap in qualifying, where he’d line up 39th that afternoon. Unfortunately, this random draw left his Chevrolet one of the 13 cars trapped in the inspection cue at the start of qualifying, preventing him from taking a lap before time ran out.
As NASCAR attempted to figure out how to set the grid for the back of the field, PRN Radio reported Cassill had secured the 43rd spot - then minutes later said Cassill had lost the spot to the #66 Premium Motorsports entry of Mike Wallace based on his number of race attempts. It wasn’t until later that day that the grid was corrected a final time with Cassill confirmed as the final starter of the race.
Wallace was sent home with four other frustrated drivers who never had a chance to qualify. None were more frustrated than Travis Kvapil, whose first start for Team XTREME Racing was scratched when the team’s #44 Phoenix Warehouses Chevrolet was stolen Thursday, forcing them to withdraw. On Saturday, the still-intact car was recovered by local police in the woods outside Loganville, Georgia, followed by the truck a few hours later. Reports indicate that Team XTREME will return to attempt next week’s race in Las Vegas.
Following a 33rd-place run in Happy Hour and a 17th-place finish in the XFINITY Series race on Saturday, Cassill rolled off at the tail end of the field on Sunday. Just a few spots ahead of him were past series champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth, who were also unable to get out of inspection in time to take a lap. Outside-polesitter Kevin Harvick joined Cassill as well, having lost his engine after turning the fastest lap in Happy Hour. Sent to the back with Harvick was Michael Annett, who took over Brian Scott’s unsponsored #33 Joe Falk-owned entry after the botched qualifying session dropped Annett’s #46 from the field following a 13th-place run in the Daytona 500.
By the first lap of the race, however, all these drivers conceded last place to four-time Truck Series Champion Ron Hornaday, Jr. The 57-year-old Hornaday, who hadn’t made a Cup Series start since the 2003 finale at Homestead where he drove an R&D car for Richard Childress, signed this year with The Motorsports Group, Curtis Key’s venerable XFINITY Series team. Following a DNQ in the Daytona 500, the qualifying chaos locked Hornaday into the 34th starting spot. Hornaday fell to the rear at the start, however, moved past the #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota of J.J. Yeley on Lap 4, then fell behind again on Lap 14.
When the competition caution fell on Lap 26, Hornaday and Yeley were both a lap down to the leaders along with the #98 Phil Parsons Racing Ford of Josh Wise, who had also bounced back from a 500 DNQ along with Yeley’s rookie teammate Jeb Burton. Wise took the 43rd spot under the caution after a penalty for his crewman jumping over the pit wall too soon, then Hornaday moved behind him once more by Lap 34.
On Lap 49, Austin Dillon stayed out too long with fender damage after contact with Regan Smith and cut down his left-rear tire, dropping debris all over the backstretch. For some reason, NASCAR credited the debris and not Dillon with the caution, so Dillon received the Lucky Dog for bringing out the yellow. This mistake was rectified less than 10 laps later when Dillon cut down another tire in Turn 3, sending him spinning into the grass. With the back of his car both damaged and covered in mud, Dillon pulled behind the wall and took 43rd away from Hornaday during several laps of repairs.
If he remained in 43rd, Dillon, who did not DNF a single time during his rookie season in 2014, would have earned the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #3 since September 28, 1992, when the late Dale Earnhardt lost the engine on his GM Goodwrench Chevrolet after 111 laps of the Goody’s 500 at Martinsville. It was the fifth and final last-place finish of Earnhardt’s career, and with smaller fields being common at the time, he never finished 43rd. As it turned out, Sunday’s finish would go to someone else.
On Lap 95, Cassill was running 31st, trying to stay on the lead lap during what was becoming a very fast race. Cassill’s Chevrolet sustained damage to the nose in Dillon’s first caution, a piece of debris punching a fist-sized hole near his left-side headlight decal. While repairs had been successful, the engine tightened up, then let go off of Turn 2, dropping oil on the backstretch. For the second week in a row, an engine failure had knocked the #40 out of the race after less than one-third distance.
Dillon returned to the track on the ensuing Lap 98 restart, then finally passed Cassill for 42nd on Lap 134. Dillon climbed to 39th in the final running order, first moving past Hornaday, whose lapped #30 broke a rear gear after 187 laps. The other two spots went to Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray, who tangled during the day’s first multi-car pileup triggered by a spinning Denny Hamlin on Lap 258. Hamlin finished 38th, just two laps ahead of Dillon and outside the Bottom Five.
Turning heads during Sunday’s race was Brett Moffitt. Coming into his Sprint Cup debut last summer at Dover, the 9-time race winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East had made just 3 starts in the XFINITY and Truck Series. Driving the #66 for Identity Ventures Racing (now Premium Motorsports), Moffitt started 18th and finished 22nd, a career-best prior to Sunday. In the six races that followed, Moffitt had not finished better than 34th, failed to qualify at Indianapolis, and endured a miserable night in the Homestead finale where he brought out 2 of the race’s first 3 cautions. Sunday was Moffitt’s first start since Homestead, a one-off driving in relief of Brian Vickers, who returns next Sunday at Las Vegas. In his first start driving the #55 Aaron’s Dream Machine, Moffitt stayed on the lead lap most of the afternoon, led a lap late in the event, and rallied in the closing laps to finish 8th. It’s the best finish by the #55 team since Vickers’ runner-up finish last July at Daytona.
*Cassill is just the second driver in Cup Series history to finish last in the first two races of the season. The only other time it happened was in NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949, when Glenn Dunaway followed up his disqualification at Charlotte with a DNF at the Daytona Beach-Roadcourse. Dunaway claimed the inaugural LASTCAR title as the eight-race season’s only repeat finisher.
*This is the first-ever last-place finish for Cassill and the #40 in a Cup Series race at Atlanta.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #40-Landon Cassill / 92 laps / engine
42) #30-Ron Hornaday, Jr. / 187 laps / rear gear
41) #24-Jeff Gordon / 256 laps / crash
40) #1-Jamie McMurray / 256 laps / crash
39) #3-Austin Dillon / 282 laps / running
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Landon Cassill (2)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #40-Hillman Racing (2)
2015 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (2)