Cassill makes progress with steady ride

It’s tough enough to be in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Throw in taking over a ride a few races into the season and constantly working to gain the faith of your team and the respect of your competitors and learning more about what you are doing and how to do it every week, and you have a snapshot of Landon Cassill’s life.

The 21-year-old driver is the heart and spirit of NASCAR’s future, a young driver with a chance who is committed to show that he deserves it. A sponge absorbing information by plumbing the minds of other drivers and gathering as much of his own information as possible, he’s melding his natural talent with the particular requirements each race brings.

And he’s learning fast.

The 2008 Nationwide Series rookie of the year has gone from testing cars for Hendrick Motorsports to racing them in the Sprint Cup Series for Phoenix Racing. He has spent one year competing at NASCAR’s highest ranks and has not enjoyed any of the comforts of a conventional setup. He wasn’t plucked from the Nationwide ranks and handed a full-time Cup ride. Instead, he has driven for a variety of teams over the past year before landing more solidly this season.

He has made 30 career Cup starts as he tries to solidly lock into the Cup ranks.

These days, he’s driving the Phoenix Racing entry and trying to make sure a full-time Cup future is on the horizon. As he looks back over his initial year of competition, which began in 2010 at Michigan International Speedway, Cassill sees a lot of lessons learned.

Although he grew up in racing, he admits that nothing could really prepare him for the challenges of the Cup series — and that he knew it would be that way from the start.

“It has prepared you, but you don’t ever — there’s no experience like Cup racing, so there’s really nothing that can prepare you for Cup racing," he said. ". . . I’ve had a lot of high-pressure races in my own respect, whether it’s Late Model racing or Nationwide, but still none of it compares for Sprint Cup racing.”

Yet, Cassill shows a maturity and cognizance of the sport beyond his 21 years.

In many ways, he views it the way a veteran would, trying to make the most of every opportunity and then distill that experience to learn as much as possible from it.

Perhaps the main thing his first year has proven to him is just how good everyone at this level is.

“The Sprint Cup Series is just so competitive, everybody is so good that it’s very tough,” he said. “I’m running on the fly every week. The end results are very important to us right now, so that’s a lot of pressure, as well. But just trying to make it the same way everybody else did.”

It’s difficult for a driver to explain just what he expected and how the experience has differed from those.

What’s not hard, at least for Cassill, is finding a way to take the most from every experience, good or bad.

“We expect it to be tough, and sometimes we have some good weeks and sometimes we have bad weeks. And you kind of see what makes you run good then you kind of see what you did that helped out and try to repeat it and when you run bad you try not to do it again,” he said.

“So there’s a lot of surprises in there sometimes, but it’s just a learning process. Every day is a new learning (experience).”

That’s an attitude that should help Cassill for years to come.

Already, he has shown just how well he can absorb information and use it to bolster his effort.

At Michigan International Speedway on June 19, his most recent Cup start, Cassill turned in his top career finish, 12th in a solid outing. That was a great way to celebrate his one-year anniversary in the Cup ranks.

The previous week, he was in front of the field with rain threatening at Pocono Raceway. Last weekend, he moved out of the Phoenix Racing car for road ace Boris Said at Infineon Raceway. but Cassill will return to action this weekend at Daytona – with high hopes.

Around this time last year, he had just made his first start. He would compete for three team owners before season’s end, and he has been with two this year. But since taking over the Phoenix Racing entry from veteran Bill Elliott in March, he steadily has worked with the same group.

And he’s still working to gain more knowledge.

Cassill, who says he tries to “grasp everything” he can, talks with drivers who have already been through that steep initial learning curve.

“I lean on the Hendrick drivers quite a bit,” he said. “Kyle Busch has always been very helpful to me and, obviously, there’s a lot of friendly drivers out there. Definitely, the Hendrick drivers, Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Jimmie (Johnson) and Mark (Martin) and Jeff (Gordon), and then Kyle Busch is one that has kind of stuck out as someone that I lean on. Also, a good friend of mine, Michael McDowell, I lean on him a lot, too. Just because he’s kind of in a similar situation that I’m in where we don’t have anything that’s guaranteed, we have to fight every week.”

Cassill also is working with his sponsors, particularly Security Benefit’s Thank A Teacher Today program. Cassill will spend Thursday at the National Education Association’s convention in Chicago to represent his sponsor while Mike Bliss practices his car at Daytona, according to a team release.

It’s just another sign that Cassill is doing everything asked of him in his journey to what he hopes will be a full-time Cup ride for years to come.

With Sprint Cup rides difficult to come by, and sponsors even more so, Cassill perseveres and focuses on educating himself and keeps it all in perspective.

As he works to make the most of his opportunity and continue to gain ground, his goals for the season are both simple and personal. They are the goals of a driver who wants to be in the Cup series for years to come.

“Keep showing improvement to a point that my team has enough faith in me that I can do this and I can be in the car every week," he said, "and putting myself into position to have a full-time ride for next year, for the rest of this season and next year and to really go after that . . . but to really focus on doing the best that I can.”