Landon Cassill knew the deal before anyone else could say a word.
On Sunday afternoon at the Auto Club Speedway, the Cedar Rapids native made a bold — and to some on television and social media, insane — decision to forego a final pit stop and lead the field to green on the final restart at the end of the race. It had the NASCAR world talking about him and his Hillman Racing team for about 10 minutes.
“We knew we were a sitting duck,” Cassill said in a phone interview Monday. “Tires were at a premium, and it would’ve been hard to beat those guys even if I had tires. There was just a lot of strategy to it.”
With cars having sustained tire trouble throughout the race — eventually won by Kyle Busch — not taking tires during a pit stop, or not pitting at all, wasn’t really a consideration for most teams.
So when all the cars came down pit road before the green-white-checker finish, Cassill himself made the decision to stay out on the track, going from 20th to the lead, with the goal to end up with a net positive on finishing position.
He knew he wouldn’t have a serious shot at winning, but said the move was more defensive than offensive.
“There were probably five or six cars that were behind me that were a lap down,” Cassill said. “They got trapped a lap down, and a big part of the reason we stayed out was to keep them from getting the wave around (and getting back on the lead lap).
“If I would’ve pitted with everyone else and allowed them to get the wave around, it would have put me at risk of losing another five or six spots at the finish. By staying out and keeping 25 cars on the lead lap, I basically ensured my worst finish would be 25th.”
He was ready to pit before the gutsy call, and got no resistance from crew chief Mike Hillman Sr., who Cassill said is like most crew chiefs who “like to put things in the drivers’ hands.”
Cassill did ultimately finish 25th, but only because he became one of dozens of drivers to suffer a tire failure — the Fox broadcast at one point had it up to 14 cars with tire problems — on the white flag lap.
The 24 year-old navigated a wild restart with poise, knowing he had to hold his line at the top of the track as faster cars with fresher tires raced past him. Still, he was holding at about 15th position as they took the white flag.
He said the restart went better than he expected and hoped he earned some respect by holding his line and not putting his car in a position it couldn’t handle, and one that might’ve caused a big wreck. When they took the green, cars fanned out and were at one point seven-wide.
“At that point, it doesn’t even matter (what the spotter says),” Cassill said. “I knew my agenda on that restart was to get a clean start, get to the start finish line and then get to the outside so that they could all do their thing on the bottom.
“If I would’ve tried to have been more aggressive and stayed in the middle or tried to block someone — which would’ve been a hopeless thing to do anyway — I could’ve gotten wrecked and really looked dumb. It would not have given me an advantageous position.”
As exciting as the moment was for Cassill and his team — not to mention his fans, friends and family watching from home — to get some publicity and potentially attract some sponsors, his No. 40 was having a good day anyway.
Cassill was running 20th before the caution, and said he was making a pass on Danica Patrick when the caution came out.
A solid run in a backup car after a parts failure caused a practice crash for the second straight week — and two did-not-qualify results the two weeks before that — was just what the team needed.
Cassill and everyone at Hillman Racing got to leave Fontana, Calif. with big smiles and looking forward to next week at Martinsville.
“It was a spiritual high, everyone was happy,” Cassill said. “We didn’t get a lot of time to work on this car Saturday. I was afraid that we were going to ride around in 38th all day. And that was far from the case. We had a really good car. It made us happy and optimistic just because that car we ran was our oldest car in the shop.“It makes us feel good about the setups we’re putting under the car and if we can kind of break through some of the mechanical failures and things like that, we might be able to put together some consistent, top-25 finishes.”