Saturday, November 9, 2019

XFINITY: Landon Cassill’s first career XFINITY Series last-place finish comes as the result of a cut tire with none on hand to replace it

ALL PHOTO: Brock Beard
Landon Cassill picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 at the ISM Raceway when his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet fell out with suspension issues after he completed 27 of 200 laps.

The finish came in Cassill’s 139th series start. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 13th for the #89, the 18th from suspension issues, and the 539th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 35th for the #89, the 42nd from suspension woes, and the 1,697th for Chevrolet.

As posted in our interview on Friday, it was nearly a year ago that Cassill, the full-time Cup driver for StarCom Racing, was tabbed to drive in place of Morgan Shepherd. The swap was made to ensure the #89 started the race, something Cassill has done for so-called “go-or-go-home” teams since the start of his Cup career in 2010. He made 16 starts that year, driving for the underfunded Phoenix Racing, TRG Motorsports, and Gunselman Motorsports. Cassill hadn’t lost his touch in the Shepherd car, qualifying the machine a strong 24th – more than enough to make the show.

The relationship has continued into the current season, where Cassill has consistently turned in sterling qualifying runs for Shepherd – 13th at Charlotte, 16th at Michigan, 24th at Loudon, then 9th at Las Vegas. He followed this up with a 17th at Richmond, 12th at Dover, 26th at Kansas, and 23rd just last week in Texas. Only a lack of sufficient funding - nearly two to three times as much as the current purse distribution – has been the reason he’s finished so poorly, forced to exit each race in the early laps. While this has bred speculation that Cassill may become Shepherd’s permanent replacement, the team’s priority remains raising the funds necessary to operate at a competitive level with the choice of driver a distant second on the list.

Shepherd Racing Ventures has been far from the only victim of what another crew member called the “start-and-park life.” Just last month at Talladega, when Jennifer Jo Cobb was spun out at Talladega, she didn’t have another set of tires ready to return to the race. Were it not for the donations of two fans who happened to pass by, she would have been done for the afternoon. This very scenario would prove decisive in how the #89 performed on Saturday.

Cassill was just as fast as ever in the Visone RV Chevrolet, which has still carried the same “throwback” scheme since Darlington because it is the Shepherd team’s only car. He began the weekend 16th of 35 drivers in opening practice and 19th of 33 in Happy Hour, then qualified 18th with a lap of 128.769mph (27.957 seconds). On race day, Morgan would sit atop the team’s pit box on the backstretch with wife Cindy on the radio. In the stall, there were no more than three other crew members, their day-glo orange pit sign in the shape of a cross, and no sets of tires.

Starting 38th and last was Bobby Dale Earnhardt, who after a hard crash in Texas was driving “Big Bird,” Motorsports Business Management’s bright yellow #13 Toyota Camry. The Camry, which ran as recently as the Charlotte Roval, was re-skinned with the teal graphics of Earnhardt’s sponsors CIA and Hyatt Life Sciences and renumbered #66. The #13 this week was driven by Chad Finchum, who like Shepherd’s team had just a small pit box and no tires at the ready. This was also the case for Dexter Bean, who qualified 28th in DGM Racing’s #92 Chevrolet. By the time engines fired, spotter communications among these and other teams indicated at least five teams would be dropping to the rear to stay out of trouble. Bean was told to “do as Mr. Gosselin tells you,” a further indication of a “start-and-park” run.

Cassill in with a flat right-rear.
The logjam for last place began early. First to take the spot was Mike Harmon, who was sent to a backup car after teammate Joe Nemechek crashed in Turn 2 after he lost an oil line while driving the #74 Valley Fire & Water Restorations Chevrolet. Harmon then moved to drive Nemechek’s #17 RWR Chevrolet, which was renumbered #74 and even had the team’s fan sponsors re-written in silver sharpie on the rear decklid. Nemechek would drive the team’s speedway car, the #17 that Kyle Weatherman ran to a 34th-place finish just last week in Fort Worth.

By the second pace lap, Cassill had fallen to 38th, then was joined by Bean in the #92, Nemechek in the #17, and Finchum in the #13. Coming to the green, Earnhardt’s #66 had once again taken the spot, and he already began to lose touch with the pack in the early laps. First to take over the spot was Riley Herbst, who just days earlier had been confirmed to run full-time XFINITY for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020. Driving the #18 iK9 Toyota, Herbst was racing Michael Annett when he spun and backed into the Turn 4 wall, damaging the left-rear corner. Herbst lost laps as the team made repairs, dropping him to last, but cleared the Crash Clock and continued onward.

As Herbst looked to salvage his run, Cassill made two pit stops in the first 31 laps. On the second stop, a crewman looked under the left-rear of his car before sending him back out. Bean came down pit road on Lap 32, made a pit stop, and likewise returned to the track. Then on Lap 33, two members of Cassill’s crew ran to the garage area, and the #89 was first to pull behind the wall. The driver said he had a right-rear tire going down, and without any tires ready to go, they couldn’t change it out. On Lap 35, Bean pulled his #92 behind the wall. On Lap 38, Cassill was told he could climb out of the car, and the entry was listed “out” soon after. By then, the tire was completely flat, and when it was removed a small hole was found in the tread. At least one crew member said the flat happened when Cassill ran over something on the track.

The flat tire (top) with a circle
indicating the cut.
Cassill and Bean’s arrival in the garage opened the floodgates as several other cars pulled in. While crews continued to look under the hood of Bean’s car at the edge of the garage, both 2019 LASTCAR XFINITY Series champion J.J. Yeley in the #38 Chevrolet and his teammate Bayley Currey in the #93 Sci Aps Chevrolet had pulled up nose-to-tail behind the RSS Racing hauler. Currey, who was not originally listed to drive the #93 slated for C.J. McLaughlin, said the car “had a bad vibration.” The reason ended up listed as “brakes,” placing him 36th behind Yeley in 37th.

The two RSS cars fell to those positions when Bean returned to the track briefly, then came back in five laps ahead of Currey. Brake problems were also the listed cause of his 35th-place finish. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Joe Nemechek, whose intermediate track car did not have strong enough brakes for Phoenix, but did have enough speed to stay on the lead lap and match the 19th-place driver. Regardless, Nemechek had to pull in after 55 laps and was done early for the second-straight day.

By the early laps of Stage 2, three other drivers had joined them in the garage – Ronnie Bassett, Jr. in the #90 Down Syndrome Awareness Chevrolet, Chad Finchum in the MBM #13, and Vinnie Miller in the #5 Pit Viper Sunglasses Chevrolet. Both Bassett and Miller’s crews attempted repairs with Miller’s looking to replace the radiator, but neither completed more than 58 laps.

The #61 of Tommy Joe Martins, who finished 17th
While a number of underfunded teams ended up pulling out early, others turned in fine runs. One of the best belonged to Tommy Joe Martins, who qualified 28th and was sent to the rear for an unapproved tire change. Martins drove the blue #61 Diamond Gusset Jean Co. Toyota Camry, a car which the team confirmed was previously the same #66 Mike Marlar wrecked in his series debut at Richmond and finished last. The car didn't even have Martins' name on the windshield - just a white rectangle covering the previous name. With the car rebuilt, Martins finished one spot behind polesitter Christopher Bell in the 17th position. The finish was Martins’ best of the season and his best in the series since his 11th-place showing at Iowa on June 24, 2017. I caught up with a smiling Martins as he talked with others on pit road, including B.J. McLeod:

“That was a good way to kind of finish up our season I think, for me anyway,” said Martins. “I’m not sure if Carl’s gonna have me at Homestead or not, there is going to be a few more extra cars here it sounds like. So, if I’m down there I think I’m going to be a contender for your LASTCAR award I think (laughs). But it’s cool. This is such an awesome place. We had a good car today. I just wish we had a little bit more, I was racing with Josh Williams a little bit there. I knew in that last run, if I could just stay with him they’d been running about 15th this year, he was just about a tenth a lap better than us and I just couldn’t quite get there. He was messing with me and said ‘well, probably if you were out here a bit more, you’d be better than me,’ so hopefully that’s gonna be the case net year. I’m gonna lobby Carl (Long). This is a good way to end it.”

I also asked Martins about the MBM team itself, where Martins’ performance has been the latest in a series of strong runs following Timmy Hill’s 7th-place showing in Bristol and Chad Finchum’s 15th just last week in Texas:

“This is something I saw when I made the move over here in the middle of the year. I knew there was speed in this team, and I believed it. Pit stops were incredible today. We beat Cup teams off pit road today. We improved on every pit stop that we made, just lights out. That’s all we had today. I think if we had another set of tires out there we probably could’ve hung with the 36 (of Josh Williams) – just a little off, just a really good day. I’m really happy with it. . .We got sent to the back there. We flat-spotted a left-front tire in qualifying and had to start in the back of the field, all the way back up to P17 in an MBM car. I’ll take that at a place like this. It’s so hard to pass. We had a super day. Thanks to Diamond Gusset, thanks to the team, thanks to MBM for believing in me and bringing me back for this. I knew about this Tuesday, so this was really cool to put this together and make this happen.”

*This marked the first last-place finish for the team in just over a year, when Morgan Shepherd scored his 19th last-place finish in a Johnny Davis backup car following a practice wreck in Texas. It is the number’s first series last-place finish at Phoenix.

38) #89-Landon Cassill / 27 laps / suspension
37) #38-J.J. Yeley / 32 laps / brakes
36) #93-Bayley Currey / 34 laps / brakes
35) #92-Dexter Bean / 39 laps / brakes
34) #17-Joe Nemechek / 55 laps / brakes

1st) RSS Racing (9)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management (7)
3rd) Joe Gibbs Racing (4)
4th) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, DGM Racing, Kaulig Racing (2)
5th) Brandonbilt Motorsports, JD Motorsports, Jimmy Means Racing, JR Motorsports, Rick Ware Racing, Shepherd Racing Ventures (1)

1st) Chevrolet (20)
2nd) Toyota (12)


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