It’s not yet 10 in the morning on Saturday, but the Sprint Cup Series has already been on track at Bristol Motor Speedway. Early morning practice has come and gone, leaving just one more session for teams to get things right for the Food City 500 the next day. The early hour means that race conditions will be different, but teams can work on the big picture.
For Front Row Motorsports, the big picture is one of optimism. After an off-season overhaul, the new-look FRM is already seeing results on track. During that span, the team downsized from three full-time race teams to two and revamped its driver roster to include 2015 XFINITY Series champion Chris Buescher in the No. 34, and Cup veteran Landon Cassill behind the wheel of the No. 38. Buescher brings with him a powerful ally in Roush-Fenway Racing, the organization he won the NXS title with, and a brand-new technical alliance with multi-car RFR powerhouse. Cassill brings Cup experience and a new perspective as he moves into the Ford camp after several years in Chevrolets.
In the No. 38 hauler, Cassill and Buescher compare notes on the practice session.
“Landon does an awesome job of analyzing everything that goes on, probably a lot more in depth than I’ve ever had a teammate do,” Buescher says during the lull in practices. “I think that’s really good for us just to try and think about where we need to head going forward. I think a lot of times, you get into a rhythm of everybody around you and how everything is done, and I feel like sometimes it’s been a little bit too lacking in details, so that’s been a really good change this year and Landon has showed me a lot of that stuff, which has helped us really dissect what we need for our race weekend.”
Both Buescher and Cassill are optimistic about the weekend and the future.
“I feel like we haven’t tapped into what we’re capable of yet,” Cassill says. “We’ve just had some good runs, but we’re really working hard on finding a weekend where our car just clicks and takes off. I think the No. 34 is really close to that now.”
The relationship with Roush Fenway means the team isn’t on an island trying to improve in a sport where finishing 25th is a world away from finishing 30th. RFR is in a rebuilding process, too, but it’s shown gains in 2016, gains that FRM will benefit from.
“We work pretty closely with Roush Fenway,” explains Cassill. “We go to competition meetings with them. Obviously, FRM still builds our own cars, but I think that’s better for us as a company anyways. I think as an organization, FRM needs to be self-sufficient. I’m proud that our ownership structure has the knowledge and foresight to maintain that independence, but we have a huge notebook of technology to lean on (from RFR)”
Buescher adds that nothing happens overnight.
“I think you can see the progression on our side with all the information we’re sharing back and forth. It’s not going to be immediate. It’s not, ‘hey they’ve improved like 10 spots, we’re going to improve by 10 spots off the bat.’ But once we can get the information and digest what’s going on and we can start working that through at the shop and start to build it into our cars, that’s when we’ll start to see the improvements. We’re making progress, which is great. The 38 has had some great finishes this year. We’ve had good cars; we just haven’t had the finishes yet. But we’re moving in the right direction.”
The optimism in in the air in the No. 38 hauler as both drivers wait for final practice to begin. Though Cassill has been in the Sprint Cup Series for several years, the two are just a three years apart in age, and they get along well. Buescher acknowledges Cassill’s in-depth analysis as something he has learned from this season. But despite his longer experience, Cassill doesn’t see himself as a mentor to Buescher. He’s a former XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year, but Buescher is the reigning series champion, and he’s run up front and won races at many of the tracks the team will visit this year. Cassill says that experience has been valuable to him as a driver.
“With Chris, I’m not necessarily focusing on him as the young driver,” Cassill says. “What I’m leaning on with Chris is that he’s won races, won a championship and had a ton of success at some of these racetracks in the XFINITY Series. So, he knows what a winning car should feel like, whether it’s XFINITY or Cup. The XFINITY race here at Bristol, he should have won that race last year, so my team has leaned on him a lot to just know like, ‘what did your car feel like? What are you looking for?” You can even see it in his feedback today, that he’s looking for that feel, and that’s helping me confirm my thoughts in the car and what I’m looking for.”
Buescher hasn’t quite gotten off to the start many expected, and if he’s honest with himself, it’s not the start he expected either. But he’s realistic enough to know that there would be struggles.
“It’s been really tough for me,”Buscher admits. “I expected it. I didn’t expect to come off the truck and be P5 in the first couple of races. That’s not realistic. We needed to have expectations that were achievable. I think we’ve been a little bit under those from the 34 side, so we’re trying to get there. But it is so difficult to step up to this level. This is the absolute best in the world at what we do; this is the pinnacle of our sport. We’ve just got to step up and be better and learn.”
Why is the learning curve so steep for Buescher and his fellow Cup rookies?
“The steepest learning curve from XFINITY to Cup is the difference between a 300-mile race and a 500-mile race,” Cassill says, explaining the biggest difference between the XFINITY and Cup series. “They play out differently – the way you use tires in terms of taking four tires on every stop, the way races seem to cycle around to the leader catching up to the tail of the field and lapping cars. If you’re running between 20th and 30th, you’re always in that threat zone of going a lap down.
“As those cycles happen over the first 200 laps of a race, the difference between staying one lap down for 200 laps is way different than if you get lapped a second time. Just having the understanding of how a 500-mile race plays out is a huge role in a guy that finishes 24th and a guy that finishes 29th in a race.”
And right now, that’s roughly the difference between the more experienced Cassill and his younger teammate. Cassill’s average finish of 25.6 is five spots higher than Buescher’s this season so far.
That average, for Cassill and the No. 38 team, bears a closer look. Cassill’s average finish in 2015 with Hillman Racing was 30.6, a full five spots below where he’s running now. But it’s not as simple as Cassill reaping the benefits of better equipment. After all, the No. 38, piloted by David Gilliland in 2015, averaged a 29.4 finish. In other words, driver and team are improving each other as Cassill is able to not only take advantage of those better race cars, but to get more out of them as well. That bodes well for the organization as a whole, and Cassill doesn’t feel like they’ve found all the speed they can yet.
Buescher says that his team is getting there as well.
“Landon and those guys have had some awesome runs throughout the beginning of the year already,” Buescher says. “It’s been awesome to see that progress this early in the season. We’re hoping to be heading in the right direction soon, but we’re expecting to have that transitional period. They’ve done a really good job of minimizing that, and on our side, we’re still working on getting a little closer. We need to finish a little bit better. I’ve got a lot to learn here. Being my first time around here, it is a little bit different. There’s a pretty wide change between the two series.”
Cassill says he feels a bit like the new kid in school this year as he learns to navigate the waters of the Ford camp, but things are beginning to click. At Bristol, he goes on to lead 20 laps after a pit gamble to gain track position. To put that in perspective, before that race, Cassill had led 33 laps in the Cup Series over his career. Buescher’s team is making gains as well.
Talk turns to the rest of the season and the recipe for the team’s continued success. Both drivers acknowledge that the biggest challenge for their team, and all of the smaller organizations in the Cup garage, is the intermediate tracks where everything from horsepower to handling matters immensely and is hard to find for teams who don’t have unlimited resources.
“Cup racing at intermediate tracks is hard,” says Cassill, who scored a 16th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway earlier this season, a strong result for a small team. “It just takes every little detail to make your car perform really good. Our cars, without a doubt, have what they need on the aero side of things. Coming from the shop, they have what they need. I think when we land on our package, you’re going to see it take off on all these intermediates.”
“I feel like (the low downforce package) did help (level the playing field),” Buescher adds. “Just from being around the RFR camp the last few years and now with Front Row, it did help the Ford camp out. The whole organization has worked really hard to be better, so it’s not just the rules package. We’re just trying to fine tune on it. Like Landon said, we’re really close now, but intermediate racing is difficult. That’s where the majority of the weight is on our schedule, so a lot of time and resources get spent to try to dial in and be as good as possible. It is tough to keep up sometimes, but we’ve done a good job so far.”
That’s real optimism, not just lip service. The feel in the hauler isn’t the tension of a team that’s feeling the pressure to find anything that might help, but rather the quiet confidence of a team that sees every week that they’re on the right track. The two drivers are loose, the conversation punctuated with laughter. Cassill, who counts training for triathlons among his hobbies, vows to get Buescher involved.
“We’ll get him on a bike,” Cassill says.
“Somebody had better be chasing me,” Buescher replies.
Talk turns to social media. Cassill is outgoing and personable, making Twitter, Periscope and other sites the perfect platform for him as he posts such fare as his recovery from wisdom tooth surgery and tagging every Twitter post he can find with the number 38 in it “38, nice.” That led to a successful t-shirt campaign and, much to the chagrin of Cassill’s wife, Kaitlan, stickers, which Cassill has taken to sticking on everything in the house.
If Cassill is a bit goofy online (“Goofy?” he repeats, pretending to be aghast at such an allegation), where does that leave Buescher, who’s more reserved online to date?
“Hey, I keep up, I’m just quiet,” Buescher says. It’s the quiet ones you have to look out for, right? Buescher laughs his agreement.
Seriously, though? “We seem to get along fairly well,” says Cassill, laughing. He continues, in summation, “RFR has really good cars right now, and they’re providing us with great information. I think our cars are going to take off here, we just need to keep digging at it. We’d love to see the 34 have some better finishes, but a lot of that has just been dumb luck at the beginning of the year.”
Front Row Motorsports is turning a corner in 2016 with a new alliance and two young, talented drivers behind the wheel of its two cars. The finishes are getting better and both Cassill and Buescher feel they’re getting closer every week to hitting on the elusive mechanics that spell the difference between toiling mid-pack and competing for top-20 and top-15 finishes. FRM has that look, that optimism, that hints that it’s ready for the next step forward.
If they have anything to say about it, it’s coming. Watch out.