Welcome to the Frontstretch Five, a brand-new column for 2014! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers, and the storylines that driveNASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things, and ideas that define the current state of our sport. In the latest edition, Amy showcases five drivers outside the limelight, without ever having the benefit of top equipment, who deserve a closer look by fans and media alike.
1. Landon Cassill
It’s surprising that Cassill hasn’t gotten a ride in better equipment, because he’s a steady, consistent driver who can both race hard and bring home cars in one piece — and that’s not something all youngsters can do week-in and week-out. Cassill did have a brief stint in decent equipment, serving as a test driver for Hendrick Motorsports and was given the No. 5 Nationwide Series car for 16 races. He scored a handful of top-10 finishes and the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award despite his shortened schedule… and was promptly released for his efforts.
Since then, Cassill has bounced around in a variety of lower-tier rides… and he’s improved each team he’s driven for. The stops have ranged from BK Racing to Circle Sport, where he had an admirable 2013 season in one of the lowest-funded cars in the garage, often running with used parts from other teams. For most, finishes in the mid-20s aren’t exactly a banner day, but for a team as small as Circle Sport, that’s a very solid effort, and Cassill was able to grab some finishes of that variety. Then, he followed it up with a spectacular, 12th-place effort in this year’s Daytona 500, picking up a sponsor at the last minute and doing it after a bike accident with a motorist left him fighting minor injuries heading in.
Driving for these underdogs has made Cassill wise beyond his years — he’ll turn 25 this summer — and he’s an outgoing, likeable personality. Cassill engages regularly with his fans on social media, and has even been known to meet up with a group of fans for a game of miniature golf. He’s the type of driver who, if he had top-flight equipment, could be immensely popular with fans.
2. Aric Almirola
Perhaps no driver illustrates the plight of trying to make a name in the sport like Almirola, who wasn’t even in the driver’s seat for his lone NASCAR Nationwide Series win. Yes, you read that right. Almirola put the No. 20 Joe Gibbs car on the pole at Milwaukee in 2007, subbing for Denny Hamlin, who was doing double duty. Hamlin was delayed, however, and Almirola started the race, putting on a dominant performance… until his Cup replacement arrived by helicopter. Despite the protests of both drivers, the sponsor wanted the star power of Hamlin in the seat, and the switch was made. Hamlin won, but NASCAR rules credit the driver who starts a race with the finish, and so the win sits on Almirola’s record. To back up that performance, Almirola finished fourth in driver points in his lone full-time NNS campaign, in 2011.
Almirola, who now races the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, has enjoyed some solid performances. He flirted with a Chase appearance in 2013 before a late-season slump. But the ride is a second-tier one at best, and top finishes are hard to come by for these teams. Almirola has gotten some, though, and has proven himself to be a threat in qualifying over the years as well, turning heads with a surprising start here and there. Almirola is young (he’ll turn 30 this year), attractive, and drives what might be the most famous car the sport has ever seen… yet it’s not enough to get him attention from fans and media. Maybe it should be.
3. Michael McDowell
Most fans’ image of McDowell is a wicked hit he took at Texas during a qualifying run for Michael Waltrip Racing. The section of SAFER barrier McDowell hit is on display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a testament to how far the sport has come in terms of safety. Waltrip saw untapped potential in McDowell, but at the time, MWR was an upstart organization and not the solid contender it is today; McDowell’s potential was never realized there. Since leaving MWR, the driver has spent time in Phil Parsons’ start-and-park Cup operation hoping for a break. This year, he’s running a partial schedule for Leavine Family Racing, where at least the team hopes to run complete races. All in all, there hasn’t been much to hint at the potential Waltrip saw.
Except for a few races in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment in the Nationwide Series, that is. McDowell had five top 10s in six NNS races in 2012 (and had a mechanical failure in the sixth running for a different team), including a second-place run at Road America. He also ran second at Mid-Ohio in 2013. For a driver who’s been racing since he was on BMX bikes, when he was too small for his feet to reach the ground, those races are a vindication of sorts — showing the world what can be done if the equipment is there. It would be interesting to see McDowell make a title run in the Nationwide Series, with a top team, because if he had time to gel with them, he’d have to be a favorite to win. And maybe that would open the doors McDowell, a devout Christian and family man who drives his own motorcoach to most races, has been looking for.
4. Blake Koch
Koch is another young, personable, attractive driver who could be quite popular… if anybody knew who he was. Koch has driven mostly in the Nationwide Series, narrowly losing the 2011 rookie title to Timmy Hill. He’s friendly and accessible, traits sponsors should be looking for. He’s had some decent runs in terrible equipment in the Nationwide Series, but it’s hard to say what the former motocross racer could do in better cars. He had a top-10 points finish in 2009 in what’s now the K&N West Series, but we’ve really not had the chance to see him run with competitive cars in a top division. If Koch could do it — and there’s every reason to believe that he can based on some of his runs in subpar equipment — he could be a fan favorite with his willingness to interact with people.
5. Timmy Hill
Hill, the 2011 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, will make his first start in a part-time effort with Circle Sport Racing this weekend after running a partial Cup schedule for Frank Stoddard’s organization last year. Hill is just 21 years old, a former Allison Legacy Series champion, and he posted a few strong finishes last year, beating Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. for Rookie of the Race honors a couple of times in race cars that were vastly inferior to theirs. Hill was at the track even when he wasn’t slated to drive, just to be with the team and to learn, something many young drivers don’t do much of anymore. He spends as much time in the garage as possible, soaking it all in, looking for ways to improve himself. That’s the type of driver fans can get behind, and it’s becoming increasingly rare in today’s NASCAR. Hill, a second generation driver, is the kind fans tend to root for: hard-working, gracious, savvy about supporters, sponsors, and media. He’s a blue-collar youngster among the blue-chip prospects. It’s a shame he’s not racing full-time, because he’s got time on his side for now.