Sunday, November 6, 2022

CUP: Landon Cassill’s crash damage forces him behind the wall in somber Phoenix finale

ALL PHOTOS: Brock Beard

by Brock Beard Editor-in-Chief

Landon Cassill picked up the 14th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Cup Series Championship at the Phoenix Raceway when his #77 Mutoh / General Formulations Chevrolet was involved in a crash after 84 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in Cassill’s 344th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup race since September 8, 2019 at Indianapolis, 118 races ago. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 39th for the #77, the 640th from a crash, and the 830rd for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 53rd for the #77, the 1,316th from a crash, and the 1,869th for Chevrolet.

When Cassill was last featured for a Cup Series last-place run in 2019, he was splitting time racing for two NASCAR legends in Morgan Shepherd and Derrike Cope. But the following year, Quin Houff took Cassill’s place at Cope’s StarCom Racing team while COVID-19 qualifying protocols scaled back Morgan Shepherd’s XFINITY program. Cassill soon reunited with Johnny Davis at JD Motorsports, where he’d later acquire new cryptocurrency sponsorship from Voyager and Carnomaly. The latter got Cassill back into a part-time Cup ride with the Gaunt Brothers while the former soon opened a door at Kaulig Racing, where he’d replace Jeb Burton in the #10 XFINITY Series ride. 

The result has seen Cassill finish 5th at Atlanta – his first XFINITY top-five run since 2011 – and finish runner-up at Martinsville. He’s since threatened in other races, resulting in a nearly successful push into the Playoffs that was decided in the final seconds at Bristol. Cassill’s sponsorship has also allowed him to maintain a presence in the Cup Series for this new NextGen car, running a partial schedule with Spire Motorsports’ #77 that began with the car’s official roll-out in the Clash at the Coliseum. This, too, has yielded success, as Cassill escaped Daytona’s multi-car pileups in August to take 4th – equaling his series-best finish from 2014.

Cassill would close out the 2022 season running double-duty with Spire’s Cup program, which would welcome back sponsorship from Mutoh and General Formulations for the first time since Fontana, where teammate Corey LaJoie carried the logos. In practice, he ranked just 33rd of the 36 entrants, then in qualifying broke loose in Turn 2, ranking his lone timed lap slowest with a speed of 126.698ph (28.414 seconds). Cassill fared much better on the XFINITY side - finishing 4th behind three of the four championship contenders. This was Cassill’s fifth Top Five and 12th Top Ten, securing him 13th in the final point standings - best of the non-Playoff drivers.

Taking the XFINITY championship that night was Ty Gibbs, who dominated the competitive title fight up front, leading 125 of 200 laps and besting Noah Gragson by just under four-tenths of a second. The race came just one week after Gibbs spun his departing teammate Brandon Jones at Martinsville, costing Jones a spot alongside Gibbs in the Playoffs. Unphased, Gibbs scored the win and the championship in his first full season, and like Cassill was slated to run double-duty in Sunday’s Cup race. His ride would again be the #23 Monster Energy Toyota, which he’d been driving since Kurt Busch’s season-ending concussion at Pocono. Prior to Saturday’s XFINITY race, Gibbs ran 3rd-fastest in Round 1 of qualifying, then secured 10th on the grid – tied for his second-best start of the season.

Ty Gibbs' crew prepares for a driver change after
news of the death of Ty's father Coy.

But the following morning, 23XI Racing crew members and NASCAR officials were standing around Gibbs’ car, which just after 10:00 A.M. local time was the only one of the 35 starters not yet on the grid. As crowds gathered, there was word that Gibbs wouldn’t run the race due to a family emergency. As the nature of this emergency remained unclear, the 23XI crew brought out several different seat inserts, combined with others from Kaulig Racing. Kaulig’s own drivers A.J. Allmendinger and Daniel Hemric both climbed inside the car to help adjust it, and 23XI’s backup car was briefly brought into the adjoining stall, apparently for parts. Brandon Jones, eliminated from Saturday’s title by Gibbs, also stood by the team’s hauler. At last, 23XI Racing confirmed Hemric would run in Gibbs’ place, at which point the team’s transporter driver lowered the liftgate. Then came the news of the emergency: Coy Gibbs, Ty’s 49-year-old father and co-owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, had died in his sleep. Coy passed just hours after celebrating with Ty the night before.

From 2000 through 2002, Coy Gibbs had himself made 39 NASCAR XFINITY Series starts and 58 in the Truck Series. He never finished last in any of those 97 combined starts, and in each series turned in some of his best runs at Texas. His 10th-place XFINITY run in 2003 as his second-best to a 9th at Talladega the following week, while his best in Trucks was a runner-up to Brendan Gaughan the previous September. Curiously, Coy was perhaps best known for his own incident at Martinsville, where he was on the receiving end of contact from Kevin Harvick – contact which got Harvick suspended from the following day’s Cup race. We at LASTCAR extend our condolences to the Gibbs family in their time of grief.

Under the cloud of this tragedy, Hemric’s relief role for Gibbs made his #23 the only car sent to the back before the green flag. He did so just before the one lap to go signal, slotting in behind Landon Cassill’s #77. When the green flag dropped, Hemric caught 35th-place starter Garrett Smithley in the #15 Jacob Companies Ford and passed him to the inside off Turn 2. Hemric also passed B.J. McLeod’s #78 Pala Casino Ford, which by Lap 2 were now side-by-side for the last spot. Smithley cleared McLeod the next time by, but the #78 gradually inched closer to Smithley’s bumper. By Lap 14, McLeod had caught Smithley, then hounded his rear bumper on Lap 16 before clearing him the next time by. It was McLeod, then, who pulled away as Smithley became the first driver lapped by Joey Logano on Lap 23. Smithley would lose a second lap on the 43rd circuit, keeping him 36th when Stage 1 ended incident-free on Lap 61. Smithley said his car was “chattering,” saying he couldn’t get into the corner and was “wrecking loose” off.

On the Lap 68 restart, Cole Custer’s #41 Ford was last in line, but made quick work of McLeod and Smithley that first time by. McLeod, now one lap ahead of Smithley despite a slow caution-flag stop of his own, cleared Smithley on Lap 71. On Lap 85, Smithley’s radio had been quiet for some time as he remained a full nine seconds ahead of race leader Logano. Then heading into Turn 1 and 2, came a “Check up! Check up! Check up!” It was here that Landon Cassill entered the last-place battle.

Cassill's car in the garage after the wreck.

According to Cassill himself, his car unexpectedly lost traction off the corner, sending the right-rear into the outside wall. The car then slapped the wall with the left-front, leaving the rear of the car exposed into oncoming traffic. Unable to avoid was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., whose #47 Fry’s / Nature Valley Chevrolet had dropped toward the back of the pack the previous run. Stenhouse struck Cassill’s car in the right-rear, ultimately drawing the caution flag. Both cars made it to pit road under yellow. Cassill’s crew sent him back out, having discovered the issue couldn’t be fixed on pit road. Per NASCAR’s latest protocol, the crew told Cassill to pull into the garage, which he did on Lap 87, taking him out of the race under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.” With his car in Stall 37, Cassill took last from Smithley that same time by, securing the 36th spot. Cassill was checked and released from the infield care center soon after.

Stenhouse’s damaged car ultimately climbed to 32nd, passing eventual 33rd-place finisher Smithley and two other drivers who found trouble. Taking 35th was Brad Keselowski, whose #6 Kohler Generators Ford suffered a fire behind the right-front tire that let out a visible trail of smoke in the final laps. Keselowski promptly went to the garage for what was listed as “electrical” issues. Completing the group in 34th was Alex Bowman, back behind the wheel for the first time since his concussion at Texas. Bowman’s #48 Ally Chevrolet suffered nose damage after he tangled with Michael McDowell off Turn 2, drawing the final caution with just over 40 laps to go.

*This marked the second last-place finish of the season for Spire’s #77 team, the first coming on the Bristol dirt with Justin Allgaier on April 17th. The number had never before finished last in a Cup race at Phoenix.

36) #77-Landon Cassill / 84 laps / crash
35) #6-Brad Keselowski / 270 laps / electrical
34) #48-Alex Bowman / 304 laps / running / led 1 lap
33) #15-Garrett Smithley / 304 laps / running
32) #47-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 307 laps / running

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (6)
2nd) 23XI Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Spire Motorsports (4)
3rd) Stewart-Haas Racing (3)
4th) Penske Racing, Team Hezeberg, Trackhouse Racing (2)
5th) Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, RFK Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Ford (14)
2nd) Chevrolet (13)
3rd) Toyota (9)


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