Saturday, February 26, 2022

XFINITY: Landon Cassill okay after frightening engine fire ends his race in Fontana

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Landon Cassill picked up the 4th 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 #10 Carnomaly Chevrolet lost the engine after 6 of 165 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 178th series start, was his first of the season and first since February 29, 2020 – the last XFINITY race at the same Fontana track – 65 races ago. In the XFINITY Series last-place rankings, it was the 73rd for the #10, the 360th from engine issues, and the 587th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s three series, it was the 131st for the #10, the 1,112th for engine problems, and the 1,822nd for Chevrolet.

All three of Cassill’s previous XFINITY last-place finishes came driving for Morgan Shepherd, whose humble owner-driver operation was nevertheless helped tremendously by the journeyman driver. It was with Cassill driving at Homestead in 2019 that Shepherd’s #89 finished 15th – the team’s best run in several years. When the pandemic altered, among other things, NASCAR’s qualifying procedure, Shepherd’s team suspended operations, and Cassill was again looking for a ride. He reunited with JD Motorsports to drive the team’s #4, but his 2021 season was plagued by mechanical issues. 

One positive that came out of 2021 was Cassill’s new sponsorship from various cryptocurrency firms. Voyager, a trading group, backed many of his runs in the #4 car while the vehicle-themed Carnomaly backed him in his return to the Cup Series. These were superspeedway starts for the Gaunt Brothers, where he finished 36th in the Playoff cutoff race at Daytona, then 24th in Talladega that fall. This led to changing fortunes in both the Cup Series, where he’s run part-time for Spire Motorsports, and XFINITY, where he’s now the full-time driver of the #10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. He was particularly strong in last Saturday’s Daytona opener, challenging for the lead and finishing 14th. Carnomaly would back him for the second round in Fontana, where he ran 15th in practice and timed in 7th in qualifying with a lap of 177.927mph (40.466 seconds).

The entry list for Saturday’s race started at 44 cars, but shrank throughout the week. On Tuesday, Emerling-Gase Motorsports withdrew their #53 while DGM Racing pulled the #90, the latter intended for Dexter Bean. The next day saw Jimmy Means Racing withdraw Harrison Rhodes, marking the first time since November 16, 2013 that Means’ #52 wasn’t entered in a XFINITY Series race.

Mechanical issues awaited some of the remaining 41 entries. In practice, Jeffrey Earnhardt encountered a gear oil leak on his #26 Forever Lawn / Toyota, and the crew pushed his car to the garage before qualifying. Kyle Sieg likewise didn’t clock a lap as the crew set to work changing the engine on his #28 Ford. Mike Harmon Racing, which only brought the #47 due to the large entry list, tried but came up shirt. A float in the carburetor was found under the hood of the unsponsored #47 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet, to be driven by a returning Brennan Poole. But the team was first on track for qualifying, meaning they had no time to fix it. Poole went out to attempt a lap, only for it to be called off as he sputtered down the frontstretch. Like Poole, Will Rodgers picked up the first DNQ of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career after his #33 Kelly Benefits Toyota couldn’t pick up enough sped. Both team owners Mike Harmon and Josh Reaume have failed to qualify for the first two races of the season. 

Third among the DNQs was Joe Graf, Jr., which was a surprise. For the first time, Graf’s #08 Bucked Up Energy Drink Ford was a Stewart-Haas Racing car, just like eventual winner and Cup Series regular Cole Custer in the #07. The SHR alliance was for the team’s races on the 1.5 and 2-mile ovals. The only problem was the team had later fit the #08 for David Starr, who was set to run it next week in Las Vegas, and reportedly not told Graf, who had been fitted into it previously. Since Starr is much shorter than Graf, Graf couldn’t get behind the wheel, and they missed most of practice making the adjustment. By the time Graf took to the track, he was well off the pace, and out of the field. With sponsor representatives of Bucked Up Energy in attendance, the goal became buying a spot in the field.

Into the mix came the RSS Racing #38, which had its own strange path to the Fontana grid. Tahoe Blue Vodka had signed with RSS team to sponsor the car, and J.J. Yeley had agreed to run the car during the “West Coast Swing,” starting in Fontana. But after that deal had been made, a separate sponsorship deal came about that allowed Yeley to run the full XFINITY season. Yeley took this deal to Motorsports Business Management, replacing Timmy Hill as driver of MBM’s #66, and swapping out Hill’s sponsorship for Yeley’s. When the decision came to fill the #38 for the west coast races, Yeley suggested Hill take his place, putting Hill into the #38 for Fontana. Hill put up a good speed, running 24th in practice and placing 18th in qualifying.

Unfortunately for Hill, his #38 was one of only five other Fords on the starting grid, and – other than Graf’s Cup teammate Cole Custer in the #07 – the only one not driven by a full-time XFINITY competitor in 2022. A deal whose details are unclear was thus struck for Graf to take Hill’s place in the #38, a car which was reportedly not a SHR chassis like its RSS teammates. It also helped that Hill and Graf are about the same height, meaning adjustments would be minimal. Graf’s name was thus added to the roof rails of the car, and the quarter-panel decals for Tahoe Blue Vodka were replaced by Bucked Up stickers. Hill’s name remained on the windshield and rear windscreen banners as Graf took to the track. After all that, Graf managed to earn a solid 15th-place finish. 

When the field was finally set, Kyle Sieg remained the 38th and final qualifier. The team completed their engine change before the field was pushed out onto the grid, and the #28 lined up in its assigned spot. He remained in the back through all of the pace laps, but wasn’t the first car across the stripe. This was Josh Williams, whose #78 American Iron Rentals / I.M.S. Chevrolet was one of six cars sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, not including Sieg’s engine change or Graf’s swap into the RSS #38. Williams ran single-file behind Sieg across the stripe with two of the other docked drivers – Jeffrey Earnhardt’s #26 and Jesse Iwuji’s #34 Chevy Truck Month Chevrolet – running side-by-side in front. Earnhardt dove to the very bottom lane in Turn 1, and had climbed all the way to 31st by the end of the first lap. First Sieg, then Williams passed Iwuji off Turn 2, and the #34 was already trailing the pair by nearly a second to start Lap 2.

On Lap 2, the #21 United Rentals Chevrolet of Daytona winner Austin Hill began smoking into Turn 1, forcing him to make an unscheduled trop down pit road. An extended stop ensued, dropping him to last on Lap 3 as the trailing Iwuji moved clear. The stop took two laps before he re-fired the engine. A moment later, another car erupted in smoke, then flames entering the first corner. This was Cassill, who on Lap 7 pulled to the apron with flames erupting from behind both front wheels. He dropped the window net, but a few tense seconds passed before he climbed from the machine. The car’s fire extinguisher went off a moment later, just as crews arrived at the scene. Long trails of fluid led from the groove to where the car stopped between Turns 1 and 2.

Under caution, having taken last from Hill, Cassill’s car was towed to the garage. The car had near-identical scorch marks across both doors, the hood badly warped from the heat. The entire engine compartment was blackened, and a crew member pointed out it was leaking brake fluid as it sat there, meaning it had to be brought back to the shop.

Cassill, now dressed in plain clothes, debriefed with his crew as they looked over the wreck, then spoke with me. According to Cassill, there was no warning that the engine was going to let go. “No, it just started smoking,” he said. With the big exception of the incident, the weekend had otherwise gone well. “Car was great,” he said. “We qualified fast, so I have speed. My teammate’s on the pole. I know the speed’s there, I just gotta finish the race now.” As of our discussion, the team had not yet figured out what caused the fire.

On Lap 10, Iwuji pulled his struggling #34 behind the wall and into his garage stall. The crew jacked up the driver’s side of the machine and worked under the rear deck in the area of the fuel cell. He returned to action 30 laps down, and would only pass one more car by the checkered flag – the #48 Big Machine Spiked Coolers Chevrolet of Jade Buford. Buford was running the high line off Turn 2 when, on Lap 122, he broke loose and slapped the inside wall with the driver’s side. The wreck knocked the rear end out of alignment, and he was done for the day. 

Finishing one spot ahead of Iwuji was Ryan Vargas, whose transmission exploded on his #6 Swann Security Chevrolet. The shifter boot – and a piece of the top of the transmission – came loose, causing debris to enter the cockpit and strike Vargas on his thumb. As of this writing, the injury is not reported to be serious. Rounding out the group was Vargas’ teammate at JD Motorsports, Bayley Currey, who after multiple unscheduled stops finished 11 laps down, his #4 KSDT CPA Chevrolet still under power at the finish.

Jeffrey Earnhardt, Sam Hunt Racing threaten for Top Ten before late issue

After starting in the back with his gear oil issue, Jeffrey Earnhardt rallied as high as 11th in the final nine laps, only for a late-race mechanical issue to drop him to 29th, four laps down.

“I think we came from the back to the front three times today,” said Earnhardt. “With the gear issue, having to start in the back, and then I think we had a tire loose, and then we got some trash on the nose and had to come down pit road to put water in it. So we had speed all day, which was definitely impressive, but we believe we might have cooked the alternator whenever we got the motor hot there on that one run. So unfortunate because I think our Forever Lawn Toyota Supra was going to be in the Top Ten by the end of this race. And it was good to go and show speed. And I think everyone saw it - it just hurts when you don't get the result.”

Despite his disappointment, Earnhardt was also excited at the year ahead, where he’ll share his Sam Hunt Racing ride with other drivers. “I'm excited, man. The effort these guys put in and just the opportunity to be in a competitive car is really exciting. I'm just thankful to be here, man. All the people that have given me the opportunity to be here, Sam (Hunt), Forever Lawn, all the people that have made this happen. It's just like I said, it hurts when you don't get the result that you know you deserve because these guys work hard. And I'm sure they'll go show it at at Las Vegas with John Hunter (Nemechek) - he's in the car next weekend. So I'm sure he'll carry the speed over and into next weekend. And hopefully, we'll keep improving as the year goes on.”

Brandon Brown finishes 11th despite right-front damage

In his own post-race interview, Brandon Brown was more frustrated for causing the damage to the right-front corner of his #68 Chevrolet than he was happy at the 11th-place finish that followed.

“Self-inflicted wounds - it's something that you need to avoid and I didn't (laughs). I gave us our own self infliction, but hey we'll just say that I'm getting it out of the way now and that way at the end of the year when we're running for a championship, we'll be premiere. So I can't say enough about TradeTheChain, Sent, Brandonbilt Motorsports, Zero-FG, just everybody that comes in to make this possible for us and give us the best equipment and give me the best shot possible to go out and compete. So, ecstatic with the the rally effort, but man, wish I didn't have to.”

Many of Brown’s late-race moves were the result of choosing the less desirable lower lane on restarts. "I kind of had it in my mind that we were going to the bottom no matter what, just because I know people were going to be scared of it because of the track treatment. But you could just make up so much ground if people bottlenecked up at the top. So risk versus reward and there's already right side damage on the car, so the risk was there. So we already gotta fix it or start in the back in Vegas. It is what it is.”

He also made sure to thank his spotter. “I also got to thank T.J. Majors. He was instrumental this entire race on helping guide me through all the craziness and three, four-wide racing. This track's wide enough to go five and six-wide, but don't tell any of the other drivers that, or they might try it (laughs). So he really is a veteran up there and it's almost like I'm just the other end of the remote control car. He's telling me what to do.”

Mason Massey recalls avoiding a last-place finish at Bristol in 2020

Finally, Mason Massey recalled his Bristol Night Race in 2020, where the B.J. McLeod Motorsports #99 entry missed the start, then came back out midway through the event, thus avoiding a last-place finish.

“We had a clutch go out on the pace laps there. We got back out there with about 100 to go and never seen the racetrack before. So I pulled out there under green flag. So I'm like, "Man, this is kind of sketchy." But we finished the race and we ran good lap times, which it didn't matter. But it was good to know we were pretty fast. And so that's something I'll probably take into this year when we go to Bristol, and just see how we do there and see how we do everywhere else.”

Massey bounced back from his DNQ in Daytona and finished the race under power in 28th, driving DGM Racing’s #91 Brunt Workwear Chevrolet.

*This marked the fourth last-place finish for the #10 in a XFINITY Series race at the Auto Club Speedway. All three previous runs came with TriStar Motorsports’ #10 when it was on “start-and-park” duty, most recently by Matt DiBenedetto on March 19, 2016. This is only the third last-place run for the #10 since Kaulig Racing picked up the number, and the first that wasn’t due to disqualification.

38) #10-Landon Cassill / 6 laps / engine
37) #48-Jade Buford / 123 laps / crash
36) #34-Jesse Iwuji / 131 laps / running
35) #6-Ryan Vargas / 150 laps / crash
34) #4-Bayley Currey / 154 laps / running

1st) Alpha Prime Racing, Kaulig Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (2)


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