A significant shake-up could be looming on the horizon for the Front Row Motorsports NASCAR team.
The decision to split with Landon Cassill after the 2017 season surprised many inside the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage. After all, the team had in Cassill a popular 28-year-old with a decade’s worth of experience in the highest level in the sport.
He was a former Hendrick Motorsports development driver that has long been praised for working with sponsors and getting the most out of his equipment.
But on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze told a small group of reporters that this could be the first of several decisions to change the overall dynamic of the mid-tier program.
“As it concerns Landon, we’re just trying to improve our program and thought we had some opportunities that would put us in a better place,”
Freeze said. “It was looking like there wasn’t going to be an opportunity for Landon for next year, so we wanted to be fair to him and let him know that as soon as we could.”
Cassill said last week that he was notified over the phone that he was being let go due to ‘radical changes’ coming to the team next year. But Freeze suggested that might have been a somewhat aggressive categorization.
“Radical was his word, not mine,” Freeze said. “Bob (Jenkins, team owner) has really challenged us since the start of the year that he wants to be better than a 30th to 32nd-place race team, so we’re looking at the whole thing to try to improve it. I could see a lot of things staying the same with some tweaks here and there or I could see some possibly other changes throughout our organization. Me included.
“There’s a lot of cards still left to be dealt and try to figure out what’s going to put us in the best place competitively as an organization. So, I don’t know. There may be more changes to come with some of the folks we got around our program, and hopefully partners. Some coming on board, new ones, and stuff that we’re talking about that I think is going to be really exciting.”
When asked if Cassill’s dismissal was a business or competition decision, Freeze said it was both.
“We’re trying to put a package together that improves the overall performance of Front Row, and I think there’s a few people out there that could help us and so that’s really what we’re trying to do,” Freeze said. “That’s not to pick on Landon, or to suggest that he was the problem, because it’s not. But if we’re going to pursue some opportunities that’s going to help our program, we want to be able to go pursue those opportunities.
“We’re 32nd second in points with the 34 car. We made a lot of changes the middle part of this year with the crew chief, engineer, and upgraded some cars. We haven’t really seen a lot of improvement on the race track, performance wasn’t where we wanted it to be and it’s not where we want it to be on the 38 car [of David Ragan] either, in all fairness. So, part of it is performance-based, but part of it is business opportunity.”
Cassill joined the team in 2016 and averaged a 26.3 finish with Donnie Wingo serving as his crew chief. Wingo was elevated to competition director in July and Seth Barbour became Cassill’s crew chief. The team has remained a (on average) 26th place team during that span.
There are several notable free agents available after this season, a list that already includes Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and possibly Kurt Busch.
Could they be targets of Front Row for next season?
“You never know,” Freeze said with a laugh, before adding that he has received numerous calls since making the Cassill announcement last week.
Freeze has frequently talked about following the path of Furniture Row Racing and making the leap from underfunded backmarker to championship contenders. Freeze joined the team in 2009 after a lengthy stint at Petty Enterprises.
During his tenure, he saw the team’s first victory with David Ragan at Talladega in 2013. But Freeze and Jenkins want more and that means making some unpopular decisions in the name of potential success.
“It all goes back to Bob’s really wanting to take the next step with Front Row to not just be a middle-tier team that only has a chance to win on the plate tracks, but a team that’s a threat to win more consistently,” Freeze said. “It’s just so hard to do for a small team competing against those big major teams out there. So, if there’s something you can do to have a good quality driver that comes along with a partnership and it helps you upgrade the engine program or whatever it is, you really have to look at that.”
It’s worth noting that David Ragan hasn’t been re-signed for 2018 either, although the team has yet to make a decision with that car as well.
“He’s not signed for next year, so he could very well decide to do something if he wanted to go that direction,” Freeze said. “We’re talking to him and being really candid about our direction. We haven’t made any firm decisions about re-signing him or letting him move on.
“He’s done a really good job and has been a threat to win a few times. I think there’s some momentum to keep that group together and get better. But if two drivers came along and brought a lot of money, that’s a value that we couldn’t turn down as we try to make our program stronger.”
By Matt Weaver