Top Dog: Landon Cassill
Yes, you read that right. Landon Cassill was the top underdog at Daytona International Speedway, scoring a fourth-place finish with the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet. It’s just his second career top-five result in 334 Cup starts, matching his previous high achieved way back in 2014 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Cassill certainly has the talent, but his equipment and experience lag behind that of several other underdogs. That proved no obstacle, however, in a dramatic finish to what’s been a chaotic and unpredictable 2022 NASCAR Cup Series regular season. In a rain-delayed Coke Zero Sugar 400 race that finished Sunday afternoon (Aug. 28), Cassill even found himself in position to challenge for the win.
It was a far cry from Friday night/Saturday morning’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, where Cassill was the victim of late-race drama superspeedways often produce. Instead, on Sunday, Cassill was the one avoiding all the wrecks, lucky breaks that rewarded him richly in the end.
As is the case with many underfunded teams, several drivers, including Cassill, ran toward the back for much of the race’s first half. He would end the first two stages in 30th and 23rd, respectively.
But let’s flash forward to the end of the race. A restart with 27 laps to go brought the intensity level up a notch as dark, ominous clouds threatened the 2.5-mile track. With 23 laps remaining, the rain struck in the blink of an eye, sending the field into a frenzy. Race leader Daniel Suarez and Justin Haley both spun, collecting over half the field remaining.
Through the fire escaped Cassill, along with several underdogs. To cause the melee, the skies had opened up, once again sending the race into a delay that lasted over three hours.
Cassill would have been happy had the race ended then; his No. 77 Voyager Chevrolet was positioned in third. But once the race restarted, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native proved he had the speed to stay near the front. As the remaining cars spread out, he was able to link up in a four-car pack that separated itself for several laps.
Cassill would lose the lead draft after Noah Gragson and Tyler Reddick got by, but he was able to back up to another group including David Ragan, Cody Ware and BJ McLeod. Up ahead of them, contact between race leader Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon allowed the field to come together once more. Cassill was able to drive back to third and put himself in position to win in the closing laps.
As the white flag flew, Cassill led a small outside line consisting of Ragan and Cindric. However, Ragan and Cindric both bailed, costing Cassill’s No. 77 momentum. Help from Gragson allowed him to stay within touch, but it wasn’t enough to score the upset victory.
Still, Cassill has a lot to be proud about. The 33-year-old tied his career-best finish in only his eighth start of the 2022 season, running for a team utilizing a number of different funded drivers.
“It’s a great day,” Cassill said. “A top five is awesome for this team. For me, it’s exciting to be able to have those kind of moments in this Next Gen car… I look forward to racing it some more.”
The scoring pylon at the end of this race is a highlight in itself. Four multi-car crashes either wiped out or significantly handicapped most of the drivers by the end of the 160-lap event. Most of that action unfolded ahead of several underdogs, allowing them to sneak through and score career days.
Gragson followed Cassill in fifth to earn his first career top five at the Cup level. It has already been announced that Gragson will be graduating to the premier series next year with Petty GMS Motorsports, and Sunday was a prime example of what the NASCAR Xfinity Series star can do at the sport’s top level. The Las Vegas native made his 11th Cup start on Sunday, but only his third in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet, as the team only competes on superspeedways.
While several drivers were content with staying in line until the final lap, Gragson practically forced them to make a move with his aggression. With help from ECR-engine stablemate Reddick, Gragson drove up through the field, getting as high as third. The bump from race winner Dillon to Cindric plus some late movement unraveled Gragson’s hopes of winning, but it was a strong run from a driver who will be in a whole new situation next time the series hits Daytona Beach.
Coming home in sixth was Ware, giving him his first career top 10 in the Cup Series. The top 10 comes in Ware’s 81st career start. After Jeremy Clements pulled a stunner in the NXS race in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Ware was poised to make it a weekend sweep for the No. 51. Ware sat in third on the final lap but was unable to receive enough of a push to make a move for the win.
McLeod earned the second top 10 of his Cup career with a seventh-place result, his career-best finish at NASCAR’s highest level. Where did he earn that first top 10? In this race one year ago, when he came home ninth. It was also the high water mark for Live Fast Motorsports, who is in just its second season as an organization. McLeod was scored in eighth when the race restarted with 21 laps to go and was able to improve by one spot over the final laps.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) August 28, 2022
Rounding out the underdog surge was Ragan, who was driving the No. 15 Select Blinds Ford for Rick Ware Racing. Ragan’s ninth-place finish delivered RWR its first Cup race ever with multiple drivers finishing inside the top 10. The 2011 Coke Zero Sugar 400 winner also ran eighth for the team in February’s Daytona 500.
Ninth place also helped Ragan complete the “All-40” challenge, as he has now finished in every position one through 40 in his Cup career. Another interesting stat is that Ragan has only competed in five races in his career with RWR, yet he has given them three of their five top 10s in team history.
While several underdogs celebrated career bests, others left the track disappointed they were not able to punch their playoff ticket. Start that off with Erik Jones, who entered the race 17th in points and finished 17th. Jones was a popular dark horse pick as he has come close to winning on superspeedways several times this year, including being passed for the lead in the tri-oval on Talladega’s final lap this spring.
Once again, the Petty GMS Motorsports driver was fast. Jones led 22 laps on the day and was a force at the front of the field. Despite getting out of shape from the lead at one point, triggering a multi-car crash, the No. 43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet held steady … until lap 131.
While running side by side with Joey Logano for second, Jones received a bump from Aric Almirola that upset his car. Jones spun into Logano, bringing out the caution although both cars sustained minimal damage.
Jones was not so lucky the third time around. With 23 laps to go, another Big One struck when drivers lost grip from precipitation. Jones was in the back of the lead pack and unable to avoid the chaos in front of him. He tried to get the car back up to speed when the red flag was lifted, but was unable to and went to the garage.
Flashes of 2019 began to run through my mind when Justin Haley stayed out during a yellow to attain the lead with 27 laps remaining. The No. 31 Celsius Chevrolet was a legitimate contender throughout the day, leading eight laps total. But Haley was one of the first victims of the wet track when the field entered turn 1 on lap 138, sending him into Daniel Hemric and ending his race. A frustrated Haley told reporters it was “unacceptable” they were still under green.
Another driver looking to steal the win was Michael McDowell, last year’s Daytona 500 winner. A week after a strong run at Watkins Glen International, McDowell once again made his presence felt at the front of the field.
The Front Row Motorsports driver led two laps and had his No. 34 Horizon Hobby Ford running toward the front when trouble hit on lap 102. McDowell was running in second when he got caught in the right rear by Reddick, making heavy contact with the outside wall and sliding down the track into Corey LaJoie, triggering a pileup. Like several other underdogs with playoff aspirations, his hopes disappeared in a flash.
Underdogs Sound Off
Noah Gragson (fifth):
Cody Ware (sixth):
BJ McLeod (seventh): “First off, it was a crazy day but it was fun executing our plan and getting it to work in our favor because we’ve been doing this a lot, but it’s still hard to pull off. We’ve had small wrecks in the back take us out. There’s really no safe spot, other than the front row or really conservative, and today we were able to put it all together and not lose a lap under that first green flag stop and just made things work.
“There at the end, we had a couple cars behind us to help. Logano helped us for a second and when they were helping me, I had a shot, but coming to three and four on the last lap I tried to get the right of the No. 62 and it stalled out a little bit and the No. 62 pulled up. When he pulled up, I had to wait until he went back down to even try to get another run and it was just too late. Still, an awesome day for a small team.”
Erik Jones (17th): “We had a really fast FOCUSfactor Chevy today and were able to run up front, lead laps and thought we had a really good shot at winning. Unfortunately, we had damage from the caution that brought out the red flag and couldn’t make the repairs to meet minimum speed and finish the race. I hate we aren’t in the playoffs this year, but proud of everyone on the No. 43 team and the hard work they’ve put in this year. We’ll keep building and use these next 10 weeks to continue to learn this car and try to get the FOCUSfactor Chevy in victory lane.”
Justin Haley (28th): “Yeah, it was raining for a good lap before we got into turn 1, my spotter said. Coming out of (turn) 2 the previous lap, it was raining and we just lost traction. It’s pretty unacceptable.
“I thought we did a good job all day with our Celsius Chevrolet and we put ourselves in position. Brett Griffin (spotter) and Trent Owens (crew chief) called that; we stayed out hoping for rain earlier. It’s just tough. I fight for my ride, fight for my life, every day. We take these small opportunities and try to make something of it.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Who knew Hemric’s car would foretell what Daytona would look like most of the weekend (you’ll know it when you see it). Hemric made his first start since Darlington Raceway in May with Kaulig Racing, debuting Cirkul on the No. 16 Chevrolet. Hemric made waves throughout the race, running in the top five at multiple points. But like several others, his day came to an end on lap 138 when teammate Haley spun and tagged Hemric, relegating him to a 26th-place finish.
— Kaulig Racing (@KauligRacing) August 28, 2022
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.