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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When the 59th Daytona 500 rolls off on Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, three cities in the United States can say they have multiple drivers vying for the Harley J. Earl Trophy — Welcome, N.C., Las Vegas and Cedar Rapids.
Brothers Austin and Ty Dillon and Kurt and Kyle Busch represent the first two cities, while Eastern Iowa will have Landon Cassill and Joey Gase on the grid.
They won’t be considered favorites to win NASCAR’s most prestigious race, but restrictor plate racing’s history is full of underdog stories — not unlike two other Cedar Rapids natives in Zach Johnson and Kurt Warner, who both rose from underdog status to the top of their sports.
Cassill and Gase both have a lot more to do to be considered in the conversation with Johnson and Warner, but both are aware of the chance they have — and don’t take it lightly.
“I need to get a win — that’s what I need to do to put myself in the category of Zach Johnson or Kurt Warner, and honestly if I’m really trying to compare myself to them I’d have to win more than just once,” Cassill said. “I think a Daytona 500 would put me in that same conversation, but I’m just humbled to be from the same hometown as those guys. And to even be considered in that conversation just because I’m a professional athlete like they are is cool.
“Their accomplishments as hometown heroes motivates me and actually is something that crosses my mind — that I want to prove myself to my hometown and my people and make them proud.”
Sunday’s Daytona 500 is far from the first time the two men who cut their teeth at Hawkeye Downs Speedway will have raced in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race together — they’ve both raced in all 13 of Gase’s career Cup starts — but it will mark Gase’s first Great American Race.
They each have a dedicated fan base in Eastern Iowa, with plentiful Facebook and Twitter followings, but surprisingly not a ton of crossover. When Cassill was still racing primarily at Hawkeye Downs, before moving up to ASA Super Late Models and then NASCAR, he raced against Gase’s dad, Bob. By the time Gase, four years Cassill’s junior, rose to a Late Model, Cassill already was in North Carolina.
So at this point, it’s still starting to sink in for people in Eastern Iowa that the two will make some Cedar Rapids history.
“I have been starting to hear that (from fans) more and more,” Gase said. “There are still a lot of people, though, who haven’t put two and two together, and when they realize it, they’re like, ‘Wow, that is pretty crazy.’
“It’s really cool to see how many have come from Cedar Rapids. Cedar Rapids has to be in the top 25 for stuff like that, I would say. It’s not that big, but it does produce.”
Both drivers want to make their hometown, families and fans proud, but both also are headed into the race and their respective 2017 seasons with different expectation levels.
Cassill enters his 11th season racing in NASCAR, with his first then-Nationwide Series start coming on July 21, 2007, for JR Motorsports, just two weeks after his 18th birthday and seven months after he graduated early from Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School. At just 27 years old, the Daytona 500 will be Cassill’s 224th career Cup Series start.
He laughed when asked if it had felt like 10 years had passed since he made the move to North Carolina, saying, “it doesn’t feel like it, for sure. I think when I first started if I met someone who had been here for 10-11 years, I would’ve thought, ‘Man, that guy’s old.’”
With improved engine and car technology, Cassill expects this to be the most competitive he’ll have been for a Daytona 500. He finished time trials Sunday in 27th, meaning he’ll start Thursday’s first Duel 150-mile qualifying race 14th.
“I felt like my Daytona car drafted really well; I felt like my Talladega car was really strong in the spring (last year),” Cassill said. “If we have a little more speed than that, then that might give us something that can consistently run in the top 10 over the course of the race as opposed to splashing in the top 10. If we can consistently run in the top 10, we can be in position to win at the end.”
Gase is going into his seventh season of NASCAR racing, and will run a full Xfinity Series schedule again with Jimmy Means Racing in addition to three scheduled Cup Series starts. This season will be the fourth full season in the No. 52 Chevy for Gase, who spent his offseason getting sponsorship — including Cedar Rapids-based Highway Equipment company, which will be on the car at Daytona — and engaged to new fiancé Caitlin.
While his goals for that series remain largely the same, Gase said the Daytona 500 largely will be about crossing off a career and life bucket list item. He came in 39th in time trials Sunday, and will roll off Thursday’s first Duel in 20th.
“I’m just happy to be here on the Cup side, but I’m obviously going to go out there knowing you always have a chance to even win at these things,” Gase said. “You just never know. I definitely just want to get to the finish in both (Cup and Xfinity races) and hopefully toward the front in both. I hope to learn a lot.”
Cassill and Gase will share the grid Sunday in the best situations either have been in yet for Cup equipment.
Cassill moved to the No. 34 car at Front Row Motorsports after the departure of Chris Buescher, and will take over the flagship Love’s Ford. Gase makes his first Daytona 500 start in the No. 23 for BK Racing — the same team for which Cassill started his first Daytona 500. Gase signed a three-race deal with the Toyota team when Best Home Furnishings came on board.
The Cedar Rapids pair haven’t talked specifically about working together in the race, but if presented the chance, both said they would jump at it.
“Hopefully I can see him and I’m sure he’ll come find me and we’ll talk about it,” Cassill said. “It’s pretty cool, two kids from the same hometown racing in the Daytona 500. He’s really worked his butt off to put himself here and stay here. I’m proud of him.
“I’d love to (work with him). If I see him out there or get behind him, I’m going to give him one hell of a push and say hello, for sure.”
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