Monday, March 26, 2018

CUP: Landon Cassill’s return to Cup ends as the lone DNF at Martinsville

PHOTO: @StarcomRacing
Landon Cassill picked up the 11th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s STP 500 at the Martinsville Speedway when his #00 / StarCom Fiber Chevrolet fell out with rear gear issues after 211 of 500 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 260th series start, was his first of the season and his first in a Cup race since September 9, 2017 at Richmond, sixteen races ago. In the LASTCAR Cup Series rankings, it’s the 24th for car #00, the 740th for Chevrolet, and the 17th by reason of rear gear trouble. Across the top three NASCAR series, it’s the 37th for the #00, the 1,584th for Chevrolet, and the 40th by reason of rear gear failure.

Martinsville was the confluence of two underdog stories. The first was StarCom Racing, a partnership between Cope and the StarCom Fiber company which backed much of Cope’s return to racing last year with Premium Motorsports. StarCom was originally scheduled to debut last September at Dover, but it was pushed to Kansas the following month, where handling issues left them last. The team improved somewhat in their next attempt at Phoenix, this time climbing from last on the 40-car grid to finish 32nd.

This year, StarCom announced that they had acquired a Charter from Richard Childress Racing’s shuttered #27 team, driven since 2011 by Paul Menard. The team then signed Jeffrey Earnhardt, who was released from Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group after team co-owners Joe Falk and Curtis Key parted ways. Earnhardt brought with him primary sponsorship from VRX Simulators, which would eventually sponsor the team’s first five races in 2018. The best run for driver and team came in the Daytona 500, where they recovered from damage to finish 21st. However, the team finished no better than 31st in the four races after. Immediately following a next-to-last-place finish last week in Fontana, it was announced that Earnhardt had parted ways with the team.

Early Monday morning, StarCom announced Earnhardt’s replacement would be Landon Cassill. The popular Cassill, the 2015 LASTCAR Cup Series Champion, was the only full-time driver from the 2017 season without a ride this year, having been replaced by Michael McDowell at Front Row Motorsports. The news of his signing for a two-race deal was quickly followed with Ryan Daley’s new paint scheme for the #00, featuring the crest of the U.S. First Responders’ Organization (

With just 38 drivers arriving for the second-straight spring race in Martinsville, Cassill and his fellow competitors would be locked-into the field. Under a persistent threat of rain and snow, Cassill turned his first 16 laps in the #00 on Saturday morning, ranking 36th ahead of D.J. Kennington’s #95 Gordon Brothers Toyota and Harrison Rhodes in Rick Ware’s #51 Custom Aircraft Cabinets Chevrolet. He then turned another 39 laps in Happy Hour, moving to 35th, besting Kennington and Rhodes again, as well as Sunday’s other returning driver, J.J. Yeley. When the rain then came, ultimately leading to a blizzard, qualifying was cancelled. This ranked him 36th on the 38-car grid as the lowest-ranked Chartered car, ahead of the two Open drivers Kennington and Yeley.

When the snow was cleared on Monday, Yeley lined up last. Making his first Cup start since last August at Bristol, he drove a new green-and-gold car for Premium Motorsports’ #55 Chevrolet, welcoming sponsor Adirondack Tree Surgeons. The car also carried a message on the hood honoring the life of Angela Mary Dean and the cause of overdose awareness.

During the pace laps, Yeley stopped on the backstretch, then rejoined the field as others fell to the rear. The first of these slid back with two laps to green. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., a one-time last-placer in Martinsville, had wrecked his primary car in Turn 3 during opening practice. His backup #17 Fastenal Ford dropped to the rear. Pulling up high in the next corner was 24th-place Michael McDowell, whose team made unapproved adjustments to the #34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford. Last was Gray Gaulding, whose #23 Earthwater Toyota incurred an inspection infraction.

When it all shook out, Stenhouse was lined up in the final row alongside D.J. Kennington, who was already set to start 37th. McDowell was a row up on the outside with Gaulding in front of him and Yeley to the inside. Working off Turn 4 just before the green, Gaulding jumped to the outside and plummeted back once again. He found a spot in the outside line behind McDowell as Stenhouse and Kennington battled for last. Stenhouse held down 38th at the end of the first lap, but had tremendous difficulty climbing through the field. It wasn’t until Lap 4 that he passed Kennington to take 37th, but Kennington came back two circuits later to bump the #17 back to last.

On Lap 8, Harrison Rhodes had slipped back to 37th, and Stenhouse worked underneath him to once again take 37th. As Rhodes began to lose touch with the tail end of the field, Stenhouse also passed fellow XFINITY Series regular Ross Chastain in Premium Motorsports’ #15 Champion Machinery Chevrolet. As the gap between Rhodes and Chastain stabilized, race leader Kyle Busch caught Rhodes on Lap 24. The next time by, Busch moved under Rhodes off Turn 3, but not without Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex, Jr. closing on Busch’s tail. Hamlin took the lead from Busch soon after.

Rhodes was still last on Lap 68 when Darrell Wallace, Jr. made an unscheduled stop in Richard Petty Motorsports’ iconic #43 STP Chevrolet. Wallace was already struggling, sent to the tail end of the field for speeding in two sections on a Lap 52 stop during the competition caution. Reports indicate Wallace then made contact with another car, then had an issue in the right-rear of his car, causing him to nearly collide with J.J. Yeley coming off Turn 4. The crew discovered an issue with the track bar, and sent Wallace back out two laps down, now in last behind Rhodes. Wallace pitted again on Lap 72 and lost another two laps for a total of four. At that point, the crew decided they would bring the #43 behind the wall under the next yellow to make more thorough repairs.

Unfortunately for Wallace, Sunday turned into a green-flag affair, and the next yellow didn’t come until the end of Stage 1 on Lap 131. That time by, Wallace turned hard left at the pit entrance entering Turn 3, stopped, then pulled behind the wall. Now six laps down, it seemed that Wallace would lose many more in the garage. As it turned out, he only lost three more before he re-appeared on pit road on Lap 134, waiting to rejoin the race. On top of it all, Wallace made another stop on Lap 138, only to incur a second tail-end penalty for too many crewmen over the wall. This left Wallace ten laps down, but still running, though for much of the afternoon he pulled to the outside to let faster traffic pass.

With all 38 drivers still running, the last-place battle was far from over, and soon saw two new contenders. The first was Gray Gaulding, whose BK Racing team couldn’t communicate with their driver over the radio. Near the halfway point, the team had NASCAR throw a black flag just to get the #23 onto pit road. Through it all, Gaulding’s lapped machine slipped to last, 14 circuits down to the leader, and one lap behind Wallace on Lap 223. By this point, another car had steered into the garage. This time, it was Landon Cassill.

Cassill was himself laps down to the leaders when he reported an issue somewhere in the drivetrain. The crew tweeted that they were hard at work on repairs, and hoped to return to action. On Lap 225, just two circuits after Gaulding took last from Wallace, Cassill took the 38th spot from them both. The team tweeted that the issue was either with an axle or the driveshaft. In the end, the team cited a rear gear issue which ultimately ended their day. By Lap 316, when the #00 was 105 laps down, FS1’s leaderboard indicated that Cassill was out.

As it turned out, Cassill was the day’s only DNF. The rest of the Bottom Five was filled out by those who also struggled in the race’s early laps. 37th went to Stenhouse, whose backup car never really got up to speed, finishing 19 laps down. In 36th came Gaulding, on the same circuit as Stenhouse. Rhodes finished 35th, one lap ahead of Gaulding and Stenhouse, after he suffered damage and pulled down pit road in the final laps. Wallace could only climb to 34th at the finish, 14 laps down to the leaders and on the same circuit as the battered #6 AdvoCare Ford of Fontana last-placer Trevor Bayne.

Taking the win on Sunday was Clint Bowyer, his first victory in 190 starts dating back to October 13, 2012 at Charlotte. In that time, Bowyer has scored all seven of his career Cup Series last-place runs, the most recent of which last September at Darlington.

As for Cassill, he is slated to run the #00 once more in Texas in two weeks. Reports also indicate that StarCom Racing may debut their second “open” car, a #99 whose number was registered by the team over the offseason.

*This marked the first last-place finish for both Cassill and the #00 in a Cup Series race at Martinsville.
*This was StarCom Racing’s first last-place finish at Martinsville.
*This was also just the second time in Cup Series history that the Martinsville last-place finisher fell out with rear gear issue as the listed cause. The other time occurred October 22, 2006, when Kevin Lepage’s #34 Oak Glove Co. Chevrolet fell out after 209 laps of the Subway 500. That race marked just the 24th series start for current two-car team Front Row Motorsports.

38) #00-Landon Cassill / 211 laps / rear gear
37) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 481 laps / running
36) #23-Gray Gaulding / 481 laps / running
35) #51-Harrison Rhodes / 482 laps / running
34) #43-Darrell Wallace, Jr. / 486 laps / running

1st) TriStar Motorsports (2)
2nd) BK Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing, StarCom Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (3)
2nd) Ford (2)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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