Saturday, February 29, 2020

XFINITY: Landon Cassill climbs to 28th before early exit in Fontana; Tommy Joe Martins finishes 18th amid adversity

PHOTO: Brock Beard
Landon Cassill picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 at the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California when his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet fell out with a loss of fuel pressure after 38 of 150 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 142nd series start, was his second of the season and second in a row. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 15th for the #89, the 3rd from fuel pressure issues, and the 543rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 37th for the #89, the 7th from fuel pressure issues, and the 1,706th for Chevrolet.

As reported here yesterday, while Cassill was assured a starting spot in Sunday’s race as 36 teams attempted to qualify for as many spots, running all 150 laps was not a guarantee. Even with a smattering of hundred-dollar sponsors claiming spots on the quarter-panels of Morgan Shepherd’s red-white-and-blue #89 Chevrolet, this fell short of the funds needed to hire a pit crew and purchase tires. Still, Cassill showed speed, running just one lap in each practice session, but ranking 27th and 15th in each. Running scuffed tires in qualifying, Cassill put up a lap of 172.616mph (41.711 seconds), good enough for 24th on the grid.

Starting 36th and last on the grid was Vinnie Miller, whose #78 Koolbox Chevrolet turned in the day’s slowest lap of 163.302mph (44.090 seconds), more than four seconds off the pole. Joining him would be four teams sent to the rear for pre-race penalties: unapproved adjustments sent back Josh Bilicki in the #99 Lemons of Love Toyota, Bayley Currey in the #47 The Journey Home Project Chevrolet, and Chad Finchum in the #13 Manscaped Toyota. Also penalized was Tommy Joe Martins for the engine change on his #44 AAN Adjusters Chevrolet following his oil line fire in Friday practice.

Before the field even rolled off pit road, however, there was word some of the other drivers were having problems. Radio transmissions from other teams questioned if Bilicki’s car would even start as the team had transmission problems and had to replace the clutch. While Bilicki’s car did roll off with the rest of the field, Austin Hill then had radio problems on the #61 AISIN Group Toyota, and didn’t catch up to the tail end of the field until everyone else had rolled away. Hill pulled to the inside to reassume his spot in line, at which point the final row now consisted of Robby Lyons, driving the #15 Sunwest Construction Chevrolet, and Stephen Leicht in the #66 MBM Motorsports Toyota. By the final pace lap, Cassill had dropped back toward the rear with Bilicki in the final row, taking the place of Leicht alongside Lyons.

When the race started, Bilicki and Lyons ran side-by-side into the first corner before Bilicki pulled ahead, dropping the #15 to 36th spot. On Lap 2, there were reports that Leicht was putting down fluid in the #66. The fluid didn’t draw the caution, but it did get on the windshield of Cassill’s car before he moved past. By Lap 4, Bilicki was now running down Leicht for position, but Lyons was losing touch with the pair. Bilicki completed the pass on Leicht and opened the gap by Lap 8. Lyons then closed the gap on Leicht, and the #15 passed the #66 on the outside on Lap 13, dropping Leicht to the last spot. Lyons then opened the gap on Leicht, who was about to be lapped by the leaders. At the start of Lap 20, the leaders put Leicht the first car one lap down.

As the leaders continued to negotiate lapped traffic, other drivers fell off the pace. On Lap 25, B.J. McLeod dropped to 35th in Johnny Davis’ #0 KSDT CPA Chevrolet. Three circuits later, McLeod passed his teammate Jesse Little, who made an unscheduled stop in his #4 Series Seating Chevrolet. Little lost three laps as a result, and remained in the final spot when Stage 1 ended on Lap 35. Cassill, who couldn’t see because of Leicht’s fluid on his windshield, prepared to come down pit road for a tear-off. Leicht was also struggling, saying his water temperature was at 200 degrees and his car couldn’t hold the low line in Turns 3 and 4.

On Lap 38, Cassill – running 28th at the time – pitted with the rest of the lapped cars, and had to be guided to his stall by his spotter. Two circuits later, he was told to pull his car into the garage area. He drove around the third garage building and pulled up behind Shepherd’s trailer at the far end of the garage area. Cassill took the last spot from Little on Lap 42, then was told to climb out the next time by.

“The car was just really tight, so I was just protecting it,” said Cassill after he climbed out of the car. “Usually – maybe just a little hypersensitive to make sure nothing breaks or falls off it.”

After significant interest from viewers about Shepherd’s sponsorship options, I asked Cassill about the best way to help the team. “Just go on Morgan’s website and reach out to them. If there’s any companies, small businesses that wants to sponsor this 89 team. Reach out to me on Twitter – my DMs are open. I’ve seen a lot of people send some messages offering to help out. Really anything helps Morgan, but really if there’s a small business that wants to jump on board, pay the tire bill for the weekend. It’s $15,000 to do the trick – from $15,000 to $30,000 can elevate this team to where we’re racing competitively.”

Leicht ultimately fell out after 78 laps, citing fuel pump issues. The rear bumper cover was coated in dried black fluid, particularly toward the passenger side. NASCAR officials did not deem Leicht out until Lap 119.

Mike Harmon’s two cars, driving by Bayley Currey and Kyle Weatherman, both spent time in the garage area. Weatherman’s #74 went behind the wall first, where the crew worked under the hood, then sent him back out laps down to the leaders. Currey’s #47 came in a few minutes later, Harmon himself looking over the right-rear after a reported brake caliper issue. Currey, too, managed to return to the track multiple laps down, and followed Weatherman at the back of the pack for a mid-race restart. Currey finished the race 30 laps down in 32nd while Weatherman ultimately fell out with engine trouble to take 34th (also reported by NASCAR on Lap 119). Completing the Bottom Five was Brandon Brown, whose #68 Vero Chevrolet was collected in a pileup on Lap 87, then ultimately dropped out with a blown engine. NASCAR reported Brown was out on Lap 124.

Other teams who struggled in the lead-up to the race enjoyed better showings on Saturday. Austin Hill overcame his radio issues and was running inside the Top 10 until a pit road penalty, then an unscheduled pit stop left him 16th. Tommy Joe Martins ran as high as 11th - at one point tracking down both DGM Racing teammates Josh Williams and Alex Labbe – but a flat tire forced a pit stop just before one of the race’s final cautions, trapping him a lap down in 18th.

“. . .We were in the battle with the 93 (Myatt Snider) really hard to get the Lucky Dog the middle of the race and then finally were able to beat him and get that Lucky Dog and got back on the same lap as everybody, kept making it better," said Martins. "When everybody came in to take tires there at the end, we didn’t  - we decided to kind of gamble and save a set. We played to our strengths there, it was really good. And two laps before that caution came out, we cut a tire down and had to pit under green. It put us a lap down and we just couldn’t get back.”

“And that’s with the guys I’m looking at up here. I don’t have any idea how the 78 (Vinnie Miller) finished 15th, that’s wild – I lapped him under green. We’re scratching our heads. The 61 (Austin Hill) – I drove away from him at the end, the 02 (Brett Moffitt) – I drove away from him, the 90 (Alex Labbe) same thing. . .But I think it shows a lot of guts from this race team. We fired off terrible. I mean, just absolutely pathetic at the start of this race and we just stayed with it. Just kept grinding at it. . .You can look at this car, it looks like it’s been through a demo derby. Dodged two wrecks, but finished the race. That was really our goal was maybe a Top 20 and finish the race, but that’s a couple weeks in a row I could’ve got a Top 15, Top 12 finish with this thing. So, I think we’ve got some better days ahead, I think we’ve got a lot of speed.”

For all the struggles, Martins was proud of what he and his team managed to overcome. “Today was just a complete showing of the heart of this team and facing adversity, and it was just adversity from the beginning of the weekend (laughs), adversity last week, adversity in qualifying and the beginning of the race. And we just kept fighting. So, just a lot of heart – really proud of my guys. Just want to thank our sponsor AAN Adjusters for being so encouraging, even through all the struggles in all of this. . .and so many people who reached out to us through Twitter and social media and everything telling us to keep our head up and believing in us. That meant so much to me. . .”

LASTCAR STATISTICS
*This marked only the third instance of an XFINITY Series driver finishing last due to fuel pressure, but it’s the second occurrence in less than seven months. The last time was on August 10, 2019, when Max Tullman’s entry fell out after 2 laps at Mid-Ohio.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #89 in an XFINITY Series race at Fontana.

THE BOTTOM FIVE
36) #89-Landon Cassill / 38 laps / fuel pressure
35) #66-Stephen Leicht / 78 laps / fuel pump
34) #74-Kyle Weatherman / 97 laps / engine
33) #68-Brandon Brown / 115 laps / engine
32) #47-Bayley Currey / 120 laps / running

2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
2nd) SS-Green Light Racing (1)

2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (3)

2020 LASTCAR XFINITY SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP

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