Landon Cassill ran almost a full season on NASCAR's Sprint Cup circuit last year, but Sunday he makes his maiden voyage in stock car racing's biggest event.
Cassill will be driving the No. 83 Toyota Camry in the Daytona 500, making his debut for BK Racing. It's a new, hastily assembled team, but the 22-year-old driver from Cedar Rapids is very enthused about his new employers.
"It's a neat deal," Cassill said this week from Daytona Beach, Fla. "The investors and ownership have Sprint Cup experience (with TRG Motorsports). They've decided they want to do this for real and go racing the right way."
BK Racing, which has Burger King franchise owners among its primary investors, bought the assets of the now-defunct Red Bull Racing, and opened up shop in Statesville, N.C. It is a two-car Spring Cup operation. Cup veteran David Reutimann is Cassill's teammate.
"They want to race all year, no start-and-parking," said Cassill. "I'm very impressed with how things are going so far."
BK Racing inherited Red Bull's owner points. By virtue of Red Bull's cars finishing in the top 35 in the 2011 point standings, BK's cars are guaranteed spots in the first five Sprint Cup events of this year.
If they are in the top 35 in points after the fifth race, they are automatically entered in the rest of this year's races. If not, they will have to qualify for the rest of the season's events in time trials each week.
Cassill was the Nationwide Series' Rookie of the Year in 2008. He re-established himself at Daytona last February, finishing third in the Nationwide Series race that Tony Stewart won. But he was without a full-time ride until James Finch' Phoenix Racing hired him early in the season to run Sprint Cup.
There are different tiers in racing. The cars may look the same, but powerhouses like Jack Roush Racing and Penske Racing have enormous advantages in resources and equipment to some of the other Sprint Cup car-owners.
Finch owns a lower-budget, single-car team. Cassill's best finish was 12th at Michigan. He led laps in seven different races last year, including the Brickyard 400.
Historically, Finch has changed drivers the way some teams change tires. But Cassill lasted through the end of the season. Finch hired proven veteran Kurt Busch as his driver for 2012, and Cassill was a free agent until landing his current deal.
"At the end of the year," Cassill said, "I'd like to have proved I can go from a top 30-contending team to a top-25 or a top-20. I think that's a realistic goal.
"Everybody in the garage knows the situation there and the pressure, how hard it is to drive for a single-car team when you don't have a guaranteed deal. I think (the BK Racing people) were very complimentary of my accomplishments last year."
Cassill basically did a start-and-park in Thursday's Gatorade Duel that set the starting order for Sunday's 500, retiring the car after four laps. So he'll start near the back of the pack in 39th.
"We've had to hustle so hard to get the cars ready that we aren't putting a lot of effort into the duels," Cassill said a couple hours before Thursday's race. "We're preserving the equipment since we're locked into the Daytona 500. The focus is on Sunday."
Cassill has lived in North Carolina since his professional racing career began, but he had something he wanted to convey to people back in Cedar Rapids and at Jefferson High School.
"I owe a huge thanks to my supporters back home in Cedar Rapids," he said. "That's where I learned how to race."I had some teachers who helped me through school when I was traveling. I hope they realize now what a huge accomplishment this is for me, and I hope they and my hometown of Cedar Rapids can take some credit."