Once it became clear that the so-called "two-car tangos" were going to decide the victor in February's Daytona 500, the prospect of a Cinderella Story in the Great American Race became perhaps as strong as it has been in the event's 53-year-history. Sure enough, NASCAR got perhaps it's greatest fairy-tale victory ever: a kid who'd turned 20 just the day before took a once-powerful organization that had only won three races in the last two decades to their first win in nearly ten years.
Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers will be looking for an encore in this weekend's Aaron's 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway, but could the track that has produced ten first-time winners have another surprise winner in the waiting?
If looking for a potential "Glass Slipper and a Gatorade Shower" tale, one should perhaps look no further than young Landon Cassill, driver of the No. 09 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet. The 21-year-old native of Cedar Rapids, IA, has never finished in the top ten in 22 previous Sprint Cup starts, mostly because he was with "start-and-park" race teams. Just three years ago, however, he was one of the hottest prospects in racing, driving a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule for Dale Earnhardt Jr's JR Motorsports team. He picked up five top-ten finishes in his 19 starts, including the Sprint Cup star-laden races at Chicago, O'Reilly Raceway Park, and Phoenix, and was the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year.
As has been the case with so many young drivers, however, Cassill was a victim of the economic climate. The National Guard, which sponsored his No. 5 Chevrolet in addition to being a co-primary sponsor of Earnhardt's No. 88 Sprint Cup ride, decided to cut the Nationwide program in favor of becoming a major associate and occasional primary sponsor of Jeff Gordon's Sprint Cup car. Cassill made just one start in all of 2009, finishing tenth in James Finch's Chevrolet at Memphis.
Cassill has only seven Nationwide starts since that race at Memphis, but it was his performance in his most recent race, this past February in Daytona, that makes him a potential contender this Sunday.
Again driving Finch's Nationwide car, Cassill started second and ran in the top-ten for most of the day. His shining moment came on the race's final lap, as he pushed Tony Stewart past Clint Bowyer and Earnhardt, his former employer, to give Stewart his fourth-straight win in the Nationwide season-opener. The knowledge and savvy Cassill displayed in the two-car draft - which included a flawless swap of positions with Stewart with two laps remaining - can only help him in a Sprint Cup event that is expected to feature more of the same.
What's more, Finch's Sprint Cup machine has been one of the better rides in recent years on superspeedways. In addition to Brad Keselowski's 2009 Aaron's 499 victory, he has recorded seven top-tens at Daytona or Talladega. Those include top-five finishes with Geoff Bodine and Mike Wallace in the 2002 and 2007 Daytona 500s. In last year's Aaron's 499, Mike Bliss finished tenth in the No. 09 car for Finch's third-straight Talladega top-ten. Bobby Labonte was competitive in last fall's event before blowing an engine.
Besides Cassill, there are plenty of other winless drivers who could break through Sunday. Paul Menard has run well at Talladega in the past, while Regan Smith nearly won the fall 2008 race. Georgian David Ragan has also been strong at the 2.66-mile track, and he could have won this year's Daytona 500 if not for a late penalty for changing lanes on the race's next to last restart before he crossed the start-finish line.
If any driver breaks through for his first triumph Sunday, there is one stat they should beware of: nine drivers won their first race at the Talladega Superspeedway. Only two, the late Davey Allison and current Sprint Cup driver Brian Vickers, ever won again. One can almost be certain, though, that if there is a first-time winner this weekend, it will be a long time before the euphoria wears off enough for them to even worry about that.