Landon Cassill was on racing's unemployment line, and there was no end in sight.
Despite winning Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 while running a partial schedule, Cassill had no job lined up for 2009. The economy had tanked, sponsorship had dried up across NASCAR and there were no opportunities for young drivers to prove themselves.
Cassill ran a few Late Model races here and there, spotted for start-and-park teams to keep his face in the garage and got exactly one NASCAR start in that depressing '09 season.
As 2010 rolled around, Cassill was virtually out of racing.
"I really didn't have anything and was kind of left for dead, it felt like," he said.
But later that year, Cassill was able to defy the odds by injecting life back into his career – and it all came down to a single lap at Michigan International Speedway on June 11, 2010.
About halfway through the 2010 season, Cassill's phone suddenly rang. On the line was Phoenix Racing owner James Finch, whose No. 09 Sprint Cup Series car had failed to qualify three weeks in a row. Phoenix Racing was a start-and-park team at the time, but it didn't do Finch any good to show up at the track if the car wasn't making the show.
Cassill's lone 2009 start was a top-10 finish for Finch in the Memphis Nationwide race, and that apparently stuck in the team owner's mind. So he asked Cassill to qualify the No. 09 Cup car at Michigan.
Never mind Cassill had not made a Cup start in his life, or that he virtually had a year off without racing competitively. The driver had been testing a Cup car for Hendrick Motorsports, and he felt prepared.
Nervous, but prepared.
"I was ready to do it," Cassill said. "It was just about showing everybody else I was ready to do it."
He spent hours playing the iRacing simulation game and watching video to make sure he wouldn't botch the opportunity when the time arrived. After all, Cassill knew what the consequences would be if he messed up.
"I knew if I missed this race or I didn't qualify, then it would be a lot harder on my career financially and just opportunity-wise," he said. "There was tons of pressure at the time, because it's all riding on one lap. You can see your team owner standing over there nervous and shaking, and you know it's up to you to put down the lap."
Cassill did put down the lap and made the race, qualifying 35th. Established drivers such as Dave Blaney, Michael Waltrip and Johnny Sauter went home that day, and Cassill out-qualified the likes of Bobby Labonte and Todd Bodine.
It was a massive accomplishment, even though only the backmarker team owners may have recognized it.
"Zeroing in on that lap – that one lap – I feel like is a defining point in my career," Cassill said. "Think about what would have happened if I would have bobbled once that lap or missed the race. He probably wouldn't have given me the chance to drive for him again."
And neither would anyone else, at least in the Sprint Cup Series. But Cassill's lap caught the attention of others in the garage. A few weeks later, TRG Motorsports asked him to qualify its No. 71 start-and-park car at Chicago and Indianapolis (Cassill started 20th at the Brickyard 400) and Phoenix Racing brought him back for Pocono and Michigan (he qualified 15th).
From then on, Cassill was in a car every weekend for the rest of the season. Team owners like Larry Gunselman were desperate to qualify and keep their programs alive by start-and-parking, and Cassill had proven he could do it. Suddenly, Cassill actually had options.
Though he never finished better than 33rd (the only race where he didn't start-and-park), Cassill views 2010 as "one of the most successful years of my career."
"It's what turned me into a Cup driver," he said. "It's when I went from being a boy to a man in terms of NASCAR. I went from begging for rides to putting my foot down and saying, 'You guys need me in your car.' It was a confidence builder."
After driving for Phoenix Racing most of last year, Cassill now has a full-time ride at startup team BK Racing. He and teammate Travis Kvapil are 31st and 30th in the standings, respectively, but this is Cassill's first full season at any level of NASCAR.
He hopes there are many more to come.
"When I was in high school, I always knew I was going to be a NASCAR driver – I just never knew how it was going to happen," he said. "Those doors opened. You can't limit yourself to anything in this sport. You've got to be able to think outside the box, and you can't turn down opportunities – because you never know where it's going to lead you.
"You can overachieve in anything, whether you're in the worst race car out there or the best one. I got my opportunities to race full time in Cup because I overachieved."
And it all started with one lap.