Landon Cassill is under no illusions about how tenuous his grip on a NASCAR Sprint Cup ride might be.
He's driving for Phoenix Racing and owner James Finch, and will start 40th in today's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It will be his 11th start of the season and eighth in Phoenix's No.09 Chevy. He has been reliable, finishing seven of the races.
And yet ...
Phoenix Racing is one of those outfits that constantly struggles to keep its head above water in the high-cost world of Sprint Cup. It continues to pursue sponsors for this season, and already has Security Benefits and the "Thank A Teacher Today" program on board. Finch hopes to have another sponsorship announcement at the Kansas race next week and says he plans on racing the entire season.
"But I don't think James is in a position to promise me a whole season, or however many races," said Cassill, 21, while sitting inside a conference room at the team's headquarters. "He's really sticking his neck out for me. Nobody on this team is in a position to say we need this much money or this many races. That's not what this team's about. We're kind of in survival mode right now."
Cassill's road to NASCAR's top series came through the predictable routes. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and ran go-kart races in that area. He moved to late-model racing and, in 2007, got his chance in Auto Racing Club of America, NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East and the Nationwide Series. In 2008, he was the Nationwide Series' rookie of the year, with five top-10 finishes and one pole.
But Cassill's big chance already had come through non-racing means. Hendrick Motorsports officials thought enough of him to ask him to be a test driver for their organization. So Cassill spent five years traveling to tracks like Kentucky Speedway and USA International Speedway in Lakeland, Fla., all in the name of making the cars of drivers such as Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon go faster.
"That kind of got me noticed," said Cassill. "It was a cool time in my life. I worked a lot on Jimmie Johnson's car of tomorrow. And when Hendrick cars kind of dominated those car of tomorrow races (in 2007), that was a pretty awesome feat, and I really felt a sense of accomplishment from that. I was able to show what I had by driving those kinds of cars on race tracks."
But spending so many years testing - while not racing - began to wear on Cassill.
"I kind of felt like I'd almost been left for dead," he said. "It was tough to not be racing. I had to grow up fast.
"I wasn't in high school any more or in college. This was the real world and how I'm making a living. I'm a race-car driver and I want to be racing, not testing.
"The whole time it was, 'When can I race? When can I race?'"
Cassill's testing acumen did get him noticed - by three Cup owners. Halfway through last season, Finch called on Cassill to drive at Michigan, the first of five races he would drive for Phoenix Racing. A month later, he drove at Chicago for Kevin Buckler's TRG Motorsports team.
The following week, Cassill led a lap at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis in a Buckler car. He also drove six races for Larry Gunselman, finishing the season with 16 starts.
But those owners didn't want Cassill to finish those races. He was a "start-and-parker" for them, taking the green flag, finishing early before any damage could come to the car, then picking up a check to help keep the team afloat.
Finch, however, is allowing Cassill more room this season.
"He did a good job (for us) last season," said Finch in an email. "I'm willing to give people a shot at making it, but I want to run good."
He has been running at the end of seven races this year but hasn't finished higher than 24th. He also didn't finish was the non-points Sprint Showdown last weekend at Charlotte, when his left-rear tire went down on the second lap and his car was T-boned by Derrike Cope's.
Cassill was still sore from that wreck a few days later. Wearing a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops and looking like a kid getting ready for summer vacation, Cassill is instead looking toward his future and whatever that might bring.
"It's more important in racing to have the right opportunity than any opportunity," he said.
"Hopefully, in a perfect world, we'll run good, solidify our sponsor and I can nail down an full-time deal. But if it doesn't work out for me here, there's going to be an opportunity for me somewhere else where I can showcase my capabilities in this sport."