Sunday, October 22, 2017

CUP: Derrike Cope’s difficult debut for StarCom Racing denies Kyle Larson playoff last-place finish

PHOTO: @StarcomRacing
Derrike Cope picked up the 28th last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at the Kansas Speedway when his #00 StarCom Fiber Chevrolet fell out with handling problems after 35 of 267 laps.

The finish, which came in Cope’s 423rd series start, was his second of the year, his first since the August race at Michigan, nine rounds ago. The finish tied Cope with Michael McDowell for third-most last-place runs in Cup Series history and closed him within two of Morgan Shepherd for third-most all-time.

The finish has also vaulted Cope to third in the 2017 LASTCAR standings. With four races to go, Cope trails current leader Jeffrey Earnhardt by more than four in both Bottom Fives (14-9) and Bottom Tens (21-14). The only tiebreaker left for Cope is to score the most last-place finishes outright, requiring him to trail all four remaining races in 2017. Thus, if someone other than Cope finishes last at Martinsville, Cope will be eliminated from title contention.

Cope’s most recent last-place run in August saw the veteran start his eleventh Cup race of the season with Jay Robinson’s small two-car team Premium Motorsports. It was also the second of those starts with primary sponsorship from New Jersey-based telecommunications company StarCom Fiber, which joined driver and team for the spring race at Pocono.

In September, Tommy Baldwin Racing was absorbed into Premium with Baldwin himself becoming Cope’s new crew chief. Their first race together was at Richmond, where both found themselves the center of controversy. With just two laps to go, Cope slipped out of the groove and made contact with the Turn 4 wall, drawing a caution that ultimately cost Martin Truex, Jr. his first win on a short track. A few days later, Cope announced that he and Premium had parted ways.

In late September, news broke that Cope and StarCom Fiber were already in the final stages of assembling their own team: StarCom Racing. A social media push included photos of Cope working on his black, yellow, and white #00 Chevrolet at a small shop. The team office displayed the driver’s trophies, including his 1990 Daytona 500 checkered flag were displayed in the office. StarCom and Cope planned to make their debut at Dover, but on the Tuesday before the race, the team withdrew in order to finish hiring staff. A couple weeks later, the team announced they would make their debut at Kansas on October 22.

At first, StarCom looked like they would have to qualify their way into Sunday’s field. The preliminary entry list held 41 cars, including Carl Long’s own single-car team, Motorsports Business Management (MBM), whose #66 Chevrolet made its own series debut at the track this past spring. But by Friday, MBM withdrew from the field, guaranteeing StarCom its series debut in its very first attempt.

Cope turned his first ten laps in Friday’s opening practice, only to anchor the charts with a best lap of 170.025mph, more than three seconds off session leader Kyle Larson’s time and nearly a second slower than 39th-place B.J. McLeod, the last-minute driver announcement for Rick Ware Racing’s unsponsored #51 Chevrolet. Cope was unable to complete a lap in qualifying, originally listing him last in the field until Ryan Blaney’s car failed inspection, dropping his #21 Omnicraft Auto Parts Ford from 3rd to last on the grid. Cope ran slower in Saturday’s opening practice, managing a best of just 165.416mph, then picked up slightly after eighteen laps in Happy Hour with a top average of 165.996mph.

Coming to the green on Sunday, B.J. McLeod pulled Rick Ware’s #51 to the rear to join Cope, who himself had moved behind last-place starter Ryan Blaney. As the field accelerated, Cope was already in last, and steadily lost ground to the rest of the field. By the end of the second circuit, the #00 was more than two full seconds behind 39th-place McLeod, and nearly 10 seconds behind race leader Martin Truex, Jr.

On Lap 8, as the leaders raced by on the outside lane, Cope ducked onto pit road, then by Lap 13 was in the garage, the crew attending to an engine issue. Cope returned to the track on Lap 35, 26 laps down, but soon after incurred the first of a series of pit road penalties, including speeding and driving through too many pit boxes. Still running off the pace, Cope pulled the car onto pit road on Lap 65, at which point he was now 33 circuits behind the leaders. He then made a second trip to the garage on Lap 72.

Moments later, Kyle Larson made an unscheduled pit stop of his own, the crew looking under the hood. Larson returned to the track, only to lose the engine on his #42 Credit One Chevrolet on Lap 76, ending his day. While it appeared the run would drop Larson to last, Cope did not return from his second trip to the garage, and thus locked-up the last-place finish by a margin of 38 laps.

The remainder of the Bottom Five was filled by the day’s most spectacular accident on Lap 199. A sideways Erik Jones in the #77 5-hour Energy Extra Strength Toyota triggered a fourteen-car pileup. Included in the carnage were 38th-place Danica Patrick in the #10 Code 3 Associates Ford, 37th-place Matt Kenseth, whose #20 DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota was parked for one too many crewmen servicing the car after the crash, and 37th-place Daniel Suarez, who struck Jones’ spinning car with the nose of his #19 Arris Toyota.

*This marked the first last-place run for car #00 in a Cup Series race since October 11, 2008, when A.J. Allmendinger’s only start for Michael Waltrip Racing in the #00 Champion Mortgage Toyota ended with a Lap 52 crash in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte. Prior to Sunday, neither the number – nor Cope – had ever finished last in a Cup race at Kansas.
*StarCom Racing is the first Cup Series team to finish last in their first points race start since April 18, 2009, when Barry Haefele made his first start as an owner of the #73 Quality Concrete Dodge, only for driver Tony Raines to fall out with brake trouble after 56 laps.
*StarCom Racing is also the first team to trail in their first-ever Cup entry since March 20, 2005, when Braun Motorsports’ first entry in the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta ended on the opening lap when their #08 Win Fuel Chevrolet, driven by Shane Hmiel, was collected in a multi-car accident.
*Cope is the first driver to finish last for two different Cup teams in the same season since 2014, when Mike Bliss finished last for BK Racing (Fall Loudon), then four times for Tommy Baldwin Racing (Atlanta, Chicagoland, Kansas, and Phoenix), securing him that year’s LASTCAR Cup Series title. This excludes 2015, when Timmy Hill finished last for Mike Curb at Michigan, then for Jay Robinson at Phoenix, as Curb sold his team to Robinson during that period.
*Finally, Cope is the first driver to finish last in a Cup Series race due to “handling” concerns – since himself on August 26, 2006, when his Raynard McGlynn-prepared #74 Royal Administration Services / Sundance Vacation Dodge made it just 7 laps into the Sharpie 500 at Bristol.

40) #00-Derrike Cope / 35 laps / handling
39) #42-Kyle Larson / 73 laps / engine
38) #10-Danica Patrick / 197 laps / crash
37) #20-Matt Kenseth / 197 laps / crash
36) #19-Daniel Suarez / 197 laps / crash

1st) Circle Sport with The Motorsports Group (5)
2nd) Rick Ware Racing (4)
3rd) BK Racing (3)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Furniture Row Racing, Premium Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush-Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
5th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Petty Motorsports, StarCom Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (18)
2nd) Toyota (8)
3rd) Ford (6)


XFINITY: Jeff Green continues record pace with four-race last-place streak

PHOTO: Michael Reno Johnson
Jeff Green picked up the 101st last-place finish of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career in Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at the Kansas Speedway when his unsponsored #38 RSS Racing Chevrolet fell out with handling problems after 2 of 200 laps.

The finish, which came in Green’s 477th series start, was his twelfth of the season and his fourth in a row. If Green finishes last in all three of the season’s remaining races, he will close out 2017 with seven lasts in a row, giving him a chance to match his record eight-race streak next February in Daytona.

Driving RSS Racing’s second “start-and-park” entry alongside Gray Gaudling for the second-straight race, Green was one of 41 drivers, but guaranteed a starting spot in the 40-car field based on his Past Champion’s Provisional. After skipping Friday’s opening practice session, then running 25th in the second, Green picked up 3mph when he turned in the 25th-fastest lap in qualifying with a speed of 174.413mph. This was more than enough to bump the #74 Dodge of Mike Harmon, the only driver who didn’t turn a lap in the session.

Starting last on Saturday was Bobby Dale Earnhardt, who locked himself into his second XFINITY Series start following a 34th-place finish at Richmond. Earnhardt was originally scheduled to run double-duty at Kansas, but Wayne Hixson withdrew his #3 Hixson Construction Chevrolet from Friday’s ARCA Racing Series race. Instead, Earnhardt would focus his attention on Motorsports Business Management’s #40 Copeland Insurance Company Chevrolet, alongside teammate Timmy Hill in the #13 OCR Gaz Bar Dodge.

While Earnhardt finished 31st and Hill rounded out the Bottom Five in 36th, the last-place battle was settled quickly with Green once again edging Gaulding by a single lap. Next to fall out was Reed Sorenson, once again running JD Motorsports’ white #15 Chevrolet. Finishing 37th was Morgan Shepherd, out after 24 laps with suspension issues on his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet.

Another small team storyline from Saturday’s race was the debut of NextGen Motorsports, a K&N Pro Series effort owned by Teddy and Jennifer Brown. NextGen made their XFINITY Series debut at Kansas with driver Josh Berry, who himself was returning to the series for the first time since a one-off for JR Motorsports at Kentucky last September. Berry performed admirably, qualifying the Browns’ #55 March Network Toyota 33rd on the grid, then running nearly the entire distance before late-race engine issues left them 34th.

Be sure to pick up your Jeff Green #LAST100 shirt right here! All profits go to RSS Racing.

*This marked Jeff Green’s fourth XFINITY Series last-place finish at Kansas, following runs in the fall of 2010, 2013, and 2015 in three different TriStar Motorsports cars.
*It was the first last-place run for car #38 in an XFINITY Series race at Kansas.

(Special Thanks to Colby Evans for the photos)
40) #38-Jeff Green / 2 laps / handling

39) #93-Gray Gaulding / 3 laps / brakes

38) #15-Reed Sorenson / 7 laps / handling

37) #89-Morgan Shepherd / 24 laps / suspension

36) #13-Timmy Hill / 36 laps / vibration

1st) RSS Racing (18)
2nd) B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Shepherd Racing Ventures (2)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, JD Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, King Autosport, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, SS Green Light Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (28)
2nd) Dodge, Toyota (1)


Friday, October 20, 2017

Entry List Storylines: Kansas

PHOTO: @StarcomRacing
Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

Cup Series Qualifying will not be a formality this weekend as 41 teams have arrived to attempt the 40-car field for the final race in the Round of 12. The 41st car belongs to StarCom Racing, whose postponed debut at Dover has finally arrived. Cope finished 39th here in the spring for Premium Motorsports, and this week will give car #00 its first Cup Series start since 2011 – if he qualifies on time.

Two Open Teams from Talladega aren’t entered this week: Tommy Baldwin Racing’s #7 and Beard Motorsports’ #75. After running exclusively on the plate tracks in 2017, the Beard team and driver Brendan Gaughan have much to be proud of in their first season, having finished no worse than 26th, scored a season-best of 7th at Daytona, and Gaughan leading his first Cup laps since 2004. In their place are the two teams which skipped Talladega, and have returned as two of the four drivers who will put StarCom Racing to the test in qualifying:

The first is Motorsports Business Management, returning to the track that saw their Cup effort’s debut back in May. Timmy Hill will be behind the wheel of the #66 O.C.R. Gaz Bar Chevrolet following a 33rd-place performance his last time out at Charlotte. He will also run the MBM’s #13 on the XFINITY Series side, where his teammate will be Bobby Dale Earnhardt, who himself will run double-duty between XFINITY and ARCA. (UPDATE: MBM withdrew Hill's Cup entry on Friday, locking StarCom Racing into its first race.)

The second is Rick Ware Racing, which did not start a single restrictor-plate race in 2017 after they came up short in the Can-Am Duels in February. The team made the show in Kansas in May, one of 24 starts in 31 races, and Timmy Hill finished 28th, eight laps down. With Hill driving for MBM, Ware's driver has yet to be announced. (UPDATE: B.J. McLeod returns to the driver's seat for the first time since Charlotte two weeks ago.)

Premium Motorsports’ Open team, the #55 Toyota driven to a 33rd-place finish last week with D.J. Kennington, will this week be driven by Gray Gaulding. Gaulding, who earned a career-best 9th-place finish last Sunday with BK Racing, will carry sponsorship from the local Harrah’s North Kansas City casino, which backed one of Premium’s cars in the last two races here. The Chartered #15 Chevrolet, which saw Mark Thompson’s unheralded Cup return last week, will return to Reed Sorenson with sponsorship from Low T Centers.

The final Open team is BK Racing’s #83 Toyota, the team which carried Gaulding to his strong run last Sunday. Rejoining the team this week is Brett Moffitt, who eyes his seventh Cup start of 2017 and his first series race at Kansas since a 32nd-place run for Front Row Motorsports in 2015. Sponsoring Moffitt’s ride is EarthWater, the brand we last saw with the team in June for Alon Day’s series debut at Sonoma. BK’s Chartered #23 Toyota returns to Corey LaJoie, who after a driver change, sat out last week at Talladega.

Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas

41 teams are also entered for Saturday’s XFINITY race, the second-straight round where at least one car will be sent home after qualifying. Missing from the Charlotte entry list are Penske Racing’s #12 Ford with Sam Hornish, Jr., and King Autosport’s second car, the #92 Chevrolet, with Dexter Bean. Both Obaika Racing’s #77 and GMS Racing’s #96, withdrawn before track activities at Charlotte, are this week not entered at all.

As on the Cup side, the XFINITY Series will also welcome a new team: the #55 March Network Toyota fielded by Jennifer Brown. The team's first driver is to be announced. (UPDATE: Josh Berry will drive, looking for his first XFINITY start in just over a year.)

Also returning for the first time since last month at Kentucky is Precision Performance Motorsports' #46 Chevrolet and driver Quin Houff. Houff’s season-best finish remains his 12th-place run at Iowa, second only to last week’s Truck Series winner Parker Kligerman’s 10th-place showing at Road America. It will be both driver and team’s first XFINITY start at Kansas.

Truck Series owner-driver Jennifer Jo Cobb makes her first XFINITY Series race of the year, this time driving B.J. McLeod’s #78 Mark One Electric Chevrolet. All five of Cobb’s most recent XFINITY Series starts came in this same fall race at Kansas, each one-off start with the same Mark One sponsorship. Her best finish at the track was a 22nd in 2012. It will be Cobb’s first start for McLeod after driving her own equipment and for Rick Ware since mid-2011. McLeod himself will drive his #8 Chevrolet with sponsorship from JW Transport, LLC.

After surviving with a 13th-place finish in last Saturday’s Truck race at Talladega, Spencer Boyd returns to SS-Green Light Racing’s #07 for his fifth XFINITY start of 2017 and his first since a 28th-place run at Chicagoland. Sponsorship will come from, just as it has in his other NASCAR starts, including his lone Kansas start in Trucks earlier this year, when he ran 20th for Rick Ware. On Thursday, it was reported that Boyd will drive for SS-Green Light full time in the 2018 XFINITY season, piloting car #76.

News also broke on Thursday that Joey Gase will paet ways with Jimmy Means Racing at the end of this season, closing a partnership that covered seven seasons and yielded Means' first top-five finish as an owner. This week, Gase returns to the scene of his 2nd Cup start at a track where his best XFINITY finish was 19th in 2012.

Following his 76th birthday on October 12, Morgan Shepherd is entered in his #89 Visone RV Chevrolet, looking to make his first start at the track since this same race in 2015, when he ran 35th. His best series finish at the track came in 2008, when he ran 24th.

Two weeks after scoring his 100th XFINITY Series last-place finish, Jeff Green will make his second-straight start in RSS Racing’s #38 Chevrolet. Gray Gaulding, who took over Green’s #93 at RSS at Charlotte, will again drive that car as part of a double-duty weekend. Ryan Sieg will make his fourth XFINITY Series start at Kansas on Saturday, a track which saw him finish 8th in this race two years ago.

Next Race: Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville
Saturday, October 28, 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

4/20/80: Tommy Houston finishes last in rare Cup start at North Wilkesboro

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On April 20, 1980, Tommy Houston picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Northwestern Bank 400 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway when his #95 Carpenter Designs Chevrolet suffered an oil leak after 9 of 400 laps. The finish came in Houston’s third series start.

In 1945, Houston was born just a few miles up the road from the Hickory Motor Speedway, a track that would feature prominently in his racing career. It was there in the 1960s that he competed against his brothers Hal and Ken. In 1967, the same year Hickory was paved and Morgan Shepherd began his own racing career on that same pavement, Houston won his first-ever Hobby Stock Division race.

Four years later, Houston was in the NASCAR Late Model Sportsman Series, modifieds, and the NASCAR Grand National East. His first victories in the former came on consecutive days in April 1974, including when he led flag-to-flag in a 100-lap feature at Hickory. Among those he beat that day were 3rd-place finisher Harry Gant, 5th-place Morgan Shepherd, and Dale Earnhardt, who wound up 8th in the field of ten. Houston continued to excel at NASCAR’s short tracks, but also branched out onto the superspeedways, finishing 29th in his first Daytona start in 1975, then 8th in his return in 1976. That same year, he scored the North Carolina State Championship, and would also claim track titles at both Hickory and New Asheville Speedway. By the close of the decade, Houston followed many of his fellow racers into Winston Cup.

The first Cup owner to hire Houston was Junior Miller, the Winston-Salem native who decades later would score back-to-back titles on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. Campaigning his #95 Chevrolet in Cup, Miller had been driving a handful of races in the southeast since 1976. By the end of the 1979 season, Miller’s best finish was a 14th in his series debut at North Wilkesboro, where his car carried logos for his roofing company. Early in 1980, Miller began to drive for fellow owner-driver Frank Warren, who would later close out a decade in the sport by selling his #79 team to Miller. With Miller’s own #95 now open for the ‘80 season, the opportunity came to put in another driver. He chose Tommy Houston.

The 35-year-old Houston made his Cup debut at Richmond on February 24, 1980, where he once again turned heads on one of NASCAR’s smallest tracks. After qualifying 21st, he took the lead on an early restart and held it for ten laps before Harry Gant passed him. Despite a late spin with Richard Childress, Houston came home 17th, 46 laps down to race winner Darrell Waltrip. A month later at Bristol, Houston improved once more, matching Junior Miller’s career-best 15th in just his second series start. The next month would see his third-consecutive short track start, this time at North Wilkesboro.

Houston qualified 13th in the field of 31, which lined him up next to Slick Johnson on the inside of the seventh row. Unfortunately, his race ended during the opening green-flag run with an oil leak, handing him his first Cup Series last-place finish. Coming home 30th that day was 12th-place starter J.D. McDuffie, who broke a cam on his #70 Bailey Excavating Chevrolet. 29th fell to Tommy Gale, driving for Elmo Langley in the #64 Sunny King Ford & Honda Ford. Rounding out the Bottom Five were Ohio native John Anderson in owner-driver Henley Gray’s #19 Belden Asphalt Chevrolet and veteran Dick Brooks in the #7 Sanyo Chevrolet.

The race was won by Richard Petty, his fourteenth of fifteen checkered flags at North Wilkesboro. Finishing 6th was Dale Earnhardt, driving a blue-and-gold Rod Osterlund-owned #2 Mike Curb / Hodgdon Chevrolet similar to (or identical to) the one given to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. last week at Talladega.

Following a 24th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600, Houston and Miller parted ways. The driver returned to North Wilkesboro the following spring, this time driving for Roger Hamby, and by the time he returned to the track that fall, he had improved his career-best Cup finish with an 11th. But after that season, Houston would start just two more Cup Series races in his career. His final start – his first in more than three years – became a footnote to the famous 1985 Southern 500 at Darlington. While Bill Elliott took his historic win and the “Winston Million” bonus, Houston ran just 47 laps in his own #32 Chevrolet before he retired with engine trouble.

Instead, Houston would go on to become one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR’s new Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series, the second-tier series which would become today’s NASCAR XFINITY Series. During the inaugural 1982 season, Houston won the first short track race ever run, taking the checkers at Richmond, and ranked 4th in the series standings. Over the next decade, he would win another 23 races. Three times in 1986 alone, his #6 Southern Biscuit Flour Buick won from the pole, leading 478 of 500 combined laps. His career in what was now the Busch Grand National Series was capped in 1992 by a record eighth win at Hickory, a come-from-behind win that came the weekend his father passed away. Houston’s 417th and final series start ended with a crash at Rockingham on October 19, 1996, then a DNQ in the season finale at Homestead. This stood as the record for most starts in the series until 2007, when Jason Keller started his 418th.

Houston remains active in racing through his family. His sons Marty, Andy, and Scott would all go on to have NASCAR careers of their own. Scott served as his father’s crew chief in the XFINITY Series. Marty drove for Wayne Spears in the Truck Series, earning a career-best finish of 4th at Kentucky in 2000. Andy won three Truck Series races for Mike Addington, and after a difficult Cup Series effort in 2001, Andy became a spotter for Richard Childress Racing, where he now spots for Austin Dillon. Tommy Houston’s niece, Teresa, also has ties to the Childress team – she married Dale Earnhardt in 1982, and remains the CEO of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

One of Tommy Houston's most recent races outside of XFINITY came in the Truck Series race at Las Vegas on September 24, 1999, where he ran as a teammate to son Andy in a race where Marty was racing for Spears. Marty finished best of the three, coming home 13th with Andy 22nd and Tommy 35th. Today, Tommy still lives in Hickory with his wife Martha of 52 years. He was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Catawba County Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

*This marked the first last-place finish for car #95 in a Cup Series race since October 2, 1977, when Houston’s car owner Junior Miller in his #95 Miller Roofing Chevrolet quit after five laps of the Wilkes 400 at North Wilkesboro. The number would not finish last in Cup again for nearly twelve years – February 16, 1992 – the engine failure on Bob Schacht’s #95 Shoney’s Oldsmobile (fielded by Sadler Brothers Racing) in the Daytona 500.

31) #95-Tommy Houston / 9 laps / oil leak
30) #70-J.D. McDuffie / 88 laps / cam
29) #64-Tommy Gale / 115 laps / oil pressure
28) #19-John Anderson / 149 laps / engine
27) #7-Dick Brooks / 153 laps / rear end

*Southers, Tim. “Where are they now – Tommy Houston,”, January 2, 2017.
*Speed Sport Staff. “Tommy Houston Was Among Greats Out Of Hickory, N.C.,” Speed Sport, August 17, 2010.