Inside The Driver's Mind

Landon Cassill

Landon Cassill (left) scored a career-high 11th-place finish last weekend at Talladega. (Photo: Getty Images)

Running down the backstretch with less than two laps left in Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, Landon Cassill saw clear track ahead, Kevin Harvick a “sitting duck” and the chance to score an upset win.

How Cassill got there and what happened next shows the volatile nature of restrictor-plate racing. Cassill took Motor Racing Network along for the ride, detailing those final laps, what he was thinking and what he saw. Tighten your belts.

Cassill could not have been in position to challenge for the lead had a series of events not happened earlier. Cassill said his strategy changed during the race when it became apparent how difficult it was the pass with the field boxed in. He knew he needed to be in the top four or five rows late in the race.

On the restart with eight laps to go, Cassill was 12th - in the sixth row. He moved to the far outside lane with seven laps to go and found himself leading a train of cars with Marcos Ambrose behind.

Ambrose shoved Cassill - “He hit me with some force,’’ Cassill said - vaulting Cassill past three cars into sixth just before Carl Edwards’ incident brought out the caution.

That move was critical because it put Cassill outside the third row for the restart with two laps left. He had Kyle Larson ahead, Clint Bowyer inside and Kyle Busch behind.

Cassill was busy during that caution formulating his plan.

“I knew that people were going to be making moves, and I knew it was really likely that they would be making moves on me,’’ Cassill said. “We’re not typically a powerhouse team on superspeedways even though we’ve run really well at them, finishing 12th at Daytona. The position that I was in on that restart was to make sure that I was the one making moves.’’

He made his move on the backstretch after the restart, jumping to the far outside lane. Busch and others followed, leaving Larson to drift back alone in the middle lane.

“It could have been Dale Jr. in front of me and I would have made the same move,’’ Cassill said. “ If I wouldn’t have made the move, Kyle (Busch) would have made that move. I kind of had to be proactive to defend my position. The move to go to the outside like that was probably sooner than I wanted it to be. 

“It was sooner than maybe Dale Jr. or Kyle Busch would have done themselves if they were in my position, but those guys have a reputation they have built over years and years of having cars that are competitive ... that they’re more likely to have people follow them no matter what lane they pick. For me, I have to kind of force people to follow me based on the lane that I choose.’’

Cassill’s car soon caught the attention of Fox broadcaster Mike Joy: “Landon Cassill, that little white car could be the darkhorse here.’’

Heading to Turn 3, Cassill had Busch and five other cars behind in the far outside line. Harvick was in the middle lane alone after Larson drifted back. Hamlin led on the bottom lane with a train of cars trailing.

“I wasn’t worried about (Harvick) anymore,’’ Cassill said, although Harvick was ahead of him running the middle lane. “He was kind of a sitting duck.’’

Cassill, though, didn’t want to stomp on Harvick just yet, though.

“I didn’t make a super aggressive move to side draft him because I felt like if I would side draft him too soon, it would slow him down enough that the middle lane would spool back up and people would dump me and get in his lane. So I actually kind of held a high lane in (Turns) 3 and 4 to ... stay off the side draft to keep his speed up. I wanted to keep him out in front of me so when I needed to side draft him I could because he was basically a sitting duck.’’

Not slowing Harvick, also gave Cassill another option - jumping down to the middle lane if the top lane stalled.

“Obviously, the leader of the race was usually in the  bottom lane and he had three or four cars behind him before the ...  second lane and that leader,’’ Cassill said “Did you notice how that guy was always searching between lanes, he was constantly going up to the top and back to the middle and up to the top and back to the middle. 

“That’s kind of what I was thinking By leaving Harvick out there on his own with that gap in the middle, if the middle gets a big run, I’ll just poke into the middle and push Harvick ahead and run in the middle lane and once I need to again I’ll jump to the top. I thought maybe I could control the two lanes for a lap in order to have myself where I needed to be on the final lap.’’

As Cassill plotting his strategy at 200 mph, Busch pounded on Cassill’s rear bumper. One of Busch’s shoves caused Cassill to get sideways entering the corner. 

“It was probably the hardest bump draft I’ve ever had,’’ Cassill said. “It happened so fast, you just hang on. I didn’t even have to lift off the throttle but a car moving sideways and back and forth that just slows you down.’’

He fell to 11th by the time he was in the tri-oval and that allowed Harvick and Larson to jump in front of him in the middle lane. Before Cassill could do anything, the caution came out ending the race. Cassill finished a career-best 11th.

“It’s just such a thrill for us to have such a good finish,’’ Cassill said. “It is amazing that a small team likes ours that has never finished 11th in any race can have a little bit of bittersweet (feelings) with an 11th-place finish but that’s because we had a shot.’’

It makes it easy to wonder what if.

“I don’t know how it would have finished out,’’ Cassill said. “I still think my run was coming.’’

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