Column: Twitter’s Cassill vs Gase debate an awkward NASCAR mess

By Jeremiah Davis

I sent out a tweet Tuesday morning, offering up a joke in reference to one Cedar Rapids native securing a ride for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega that for the last three races has belonged to another Cedar Rapids native.

StarCom Racing had announced Joey Gase had sponsorship in Sparks Energy – his Xfinity Series sponsor, too – and would be driving the No. 00 at Talladega in two weeks. They announced it less than 24 hours after Landon Cassill had achieved the first-year organization’s best finish, a 20th at Bristol. My joke was that it got awkward in Cedar Rapids.

At least I thought it was a joke.

Turns out, a few people felt some things about Cassill not being in the ride. The fact that it was anyone else was frustrating for his diehard legion of fans, but that it was Gase has led to more than a little backlash for the Xfinity Series regular. That anger has been, as Gase put it, “the most hate mail I’ve ever gotten,” and pushed him to defend himself on Twitter for the way the deal went down.

Gase said Wednesday that he and StarCom reached an agreement in the days after Jeffrey Earnhardt was released from the team and long before it was announced. There’s no personal vendetta or hometown one-upping going on here.

Ultimately, Cassill summed up pretty succinctly how I felt about Gase’s tweet.

“Joey Gase doesn’t owe anyone an apology for bringing a new sponsor into the sport,” Cassill said Wednesday. “A real paying sponsor that’s putting up real money? He doesn’t have to say sorry for doing that. There’s only 36 guaranteed starting spots in the field. It’s a tough business.”

Let’s unpack Gase’s side of things for a second, because I believe he’s the target of some misplaced anger here.

Gase has a relationship with a sponsor that is bringing new money into the sport in a time where that’s becoming rarer. Longtime sponsors like Lowe’s are leaving the sport completely due to a change in advertising strategies. It’s a problem. Sparks Energy is new to the game, has sponsored an Xfinity race at Talladega the last two years and has latched on with Gase and helped him secure a full-time ride with Go Green Racing in NXS. If they also want to support Gase in select Cup races, that’s his and their prerogative.

That’s all in addition to the fact that Gase has had tangible success at superspeedways.

Joey Gase photo
Cedar Rapids native Joey Gase sits in his car waiting to go out to practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (Jeremiah Davis photo)

Be mad about “money over merit” if you want, because the rent-a-ride culture has taken the shine off the sport for many, but there absolutely is merit to putting Gase in a car at Talladega and Daytona. His NXS average finish in four career starts at Talladega? It’s 17.5, including a career-best fifth in 2015. In 2017, he ran both Cup races at Talladega, finishing 21st in the spring and was caught in a Big One in the fall while running with the lead pack. Also last season, he finished seventh an 10th in two NXS starts at Daytona. He’s been running at the finish in 14 of 19 career plate races, Cup and NXS combined. He takes care of his equipment and especially recently has gotten a lot out of it.

Gase owes no one an apology.

“A lot of people are looking at it as, ‘What the hell? Landon just got 20th at Bristol and now they’re pulling him out of the car?’ and it’s not like that at all,” Gase said. “The thing that sucks about social media is everyone has an opinion, and sometimes that opinion doesn’t have any facts behind it at all.

“If you go back and look at my record at superspeedways and what I’ve done with small teams, it’s good too. I know what kind of a driver I am. I understand people are fans of other drivers. They should be. It’s what makes the sport. I’m sure if the roles were switched, some of my fans would be saying the same thing. It’s nothing to take personal.”

Cassill has been on a week-to-week deal with StarCom. This fledging team needed someone to come in an help stabilize their seat after a rocky start to their existence. Cassill has finishes of 38th (broken rear gear), 21st and 20th. He’s in the car again for Richmond this weekend, and he said Wednesday there’s potential for this to be a more solidified situation going forward.

And while Cassill might be frustrated he’s not in the racecar at a track where he too has seen his best success, he’s not mad at Gase for it. The pair haven’t talked about this situation, and both kind of laughed when asked if they would, because there’s nothing really to discuss.

“I’m not exclusive to StarCom, and they’re not exclusive to me, but we’ve got continuity we’re building that’s pointing in a good direction,” Cassill said. “They’re a startup team that’s invested a lot of money in this sport. They need to run well, but need a return on their investment.

“I have no reason to hold anything against Joey.”

Placing blame on any one individual here makes them a scapegoat, and that’s not fair to anyone.

If the timing of the announcement is handled differently, both Gase and StarCom probably take way less heat than they have from the legion of Cassill supporters on social media. If it’s true that those two parties knew this was coming, when and how it was announced had to be better than it was to save all parties quite a lot of hassle.

The optics of a team announcing a different driver less than 24 hours after another guy got them their best finish isn’t great. It’s forced StarCom to clean up a mess, Gase to have to defend himself and Cassill into a position where he’s seemingly pitted against a fellow former Hawkeye Downs Speedway regular, with whom he has a good relationship and whose families have worked closely together in the past.

StarCom is doing what it has to do. The business model of the sport now makes it vital for small teams to find funding to help them further their goals. There’s no doubt none of this was intentional to slight Cassill, a guy for whom they have a great deal of admiration. Of course they didn’t want to set up Gase to be picked on.

It’s a learning experience for everyone.

“This was a done deal before anyone announced Landon would be driving the races for StarCom,” Gase said. “We’ve known each other since I was eight and he was 12. He raced against my dad at Hawkeye Downs. We bought go-kart motors from him. We bought his old Super Late Model. We went to Roger (Cassill) for advice when we were going down that road. We’ve gone back and forth with each other. We’re great. We both understand the racing world.

“Besides laughing about what’s gone down on Twitter, there’s not much else to talk about. There’s nothing I could’ve done differently, other than maybe made an announcement on Thursday before Landon got 20th on Monday.”

This isn’t and shouldn’t be a “you can’t be mad” situation. In fact, a fan base reacting as Cassill’s has in the last two days is a great sign for people caring about a driver and the sport.

Landon Cassill photo
Cedar Rapids native Landon Cassill sits in his NASCAR racecar before a race in 2017. (Photo courtesy Cassill family)

Cassill actually sees it as motivation, in a way. He said he doesn’t want to be lifted up via another person being torn down, but he does want his fans to be upset when he’s not in the car. Having expectations to live up to is a tremendous motivating factor.

The 28-year-old isn’t advocating for the targeting of anyone not named Landon Cassill in his car, but he’s still grateful they care enough to speak up in his defense.

“I have really passionate fans,” Cassill said. “I think they love seeing what I do on the racetrack, and that’s why I think my fans are some of the most valuable in the sport, because of their intensity. I hope they’re upset generally when they see I’m not in the car. The fact that they’re so upset I’m not in a car at Talladega is what motivates me to continue to do this.

“I want to make it up to my fans to keep doing a good job and get in a position where the LC fanbase can see more long-term commitments from a team instead of a week-to-week commitments.”

Sometimes life throws you coincidences that you have to laugh at. This is one of those times. What are the chances the two Cedar Rapids natives in the garage cross paths like this, in such an opposing way?

It’s awkward. It shouldn’t have to be. But as long as racing requires money, one way or another, something like this will make it awkward.

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