- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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For Landon Cassill and Travis Kittleson, Gateway International Raceway could well be the gateway to racing success.
At least that's what they hope heading into Saturday night's Gateway 250 Busch Series race at the 1.25-mile track just outside St. Louis.
Cassill, who turned 18 on July 17, hopes to make his series debut in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 24 entry.
Growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Cassill raced go-karts at age 10 and moved through the ranks, including stops in Legends cars, Modifieds and American Speed Association. So far with Hendrick Motorsports, he's started two NASCAR Grand National Division Busch East Series races and one ARCA event.
I'm pumped up. I'm hoping for the Cinderella story. It's the opportunity of a lifetime to get in a Joe Gibbs car.
Now, though, the stakes are a bit higher, and Cassill is setting his goals accordingly.
"I'm looking to have a clean race this weekend and complete all the laps," Cassill said. "It's going to be a great experience racing with some of the Nextel Cup drivers as well as the Busch Series regulars. This week, I'm going to stay focused and mentally prepare myself for the race on Saturday. It's going to be a lot of fun and I expect to learn some great things."
Cassill has worked extensively with the R&D team at Hendrick, turning plenty of test laps in the Car of Tomorrow in addition to the three races he's run.
"I've been building a great relationship with the other employees at Hendrick Motorsports, which is important for the communication process at the track and how efficiently we can make decisions," he said. "Pit-crew practice has helped me to understand what the crew goes through and what they have to do to have a successful pit stop.
"I've also learned what I can do to further help them, as far as getting into and out of the pit box. I'm getting in shape. My trainer is teaching me a lot about what a driver's body goes through during a race. It's all been interesting."
But the biggest transformation starts this weekend.
"Racing in NASCAR is completely different from any other form of racing I've experienced. My life is about to go through a big change, and I'm ready to make the best of this opportunity," Cassill said. "NASCAR is the No. 1 spectator sport in America, and its popularity puts an added pressure on the off-track side of things, which is something that is new to me. It forces you to not only focus on the competitive side of things, but also the off-track obligations, like the media, sponsor appearances and, hopefully, building a fan base. But all of that makes the sport great and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Kittleson, 27, will be making just his third Busch Series start, and his first since 2005. This time, he'll be in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 entry, driving for a team that has won races this year with Denny Hamlin and Eric Almirola.
A veteran of ASA and Super Late Model competition, Kittleson's first two Busch Series starts came with his own team. With only a pair of Craftsman Truck Series starts to his credit this year, he can't wait to get going at Gateway.
"I'm pumped up. I'm hoping for the Cinderella story. It's the opportunity of a lifetime to get in a Joe Gibbs car," Kittleson said. "The way the team's been working this year and how the car's been running, regardless of what driver's been in it, it just makes me really excited.
"I've been hanging out with them and listening on the radio, and [crew chief] Dave Rogers is, by far, probably one of the best leaders I've ever had the opportunity to be around. I've learned from them the last couple of months. I can't tell you how great I feel about knowing that everything I need to perform is going to be there."
One of the main goals for Kittleson is to keep from trying to do too much too soon out on the track.
"The first part of practice, I'm going to be getting some dust off. I'm going to have to learn quickly and get up on the wheel," he said. "I'm going to have to get to the point where, like when you're racing often, you do things without thinking. I've got to get to that point again really, really quickly.
"If I can get to that point, it'll be a perfect scenario. If we unload like they've been unloading all year, and like every time they've been to Gateway, I think there is a good chance that we could win. The odds are against me, but it's there. It's a possibility."
While a win likely would open a few doors for Kittleson, a solid performance could do the same. He knows the equipment will be capable of winning, and he doesn't feel as if simply bringing the car home in one piece will equate to a successful outing.
"They want me to get the best result. They've got my best result in mind. I've raced for a couple of other teams in the past where that hasn't been the case," Kittleson said. "I honestly feel we've got a great game plan.
"First, you focus on a top-10. Then you're not going to try to drive over your head. You're not going to try to prove too much. If we get to the end of the race and we're in the top-10, they said they'll get up there. My first goal is to finish the race. But in their minds, they're going to that race to bring home the hardware. They're going to the track to win. They don't ever go there any other way. That kind of confidence makes me feel comfortable."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
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