Thursday, June 22, 2017

6/25/06: Road ringer Tom Hubert scores three straight last-place finishes at Sonoma

PHOTO: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images
On June 25, 2006, Tom Hubert picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Nextel Cup Series career in the Dodge / Save Mart 350 at the Infineon Raceway when his #27 Interush Ford was involved in a multi-car accident on the opening lap of the 110-lap race.

The finish, which came in Hubert’s 11th series start, was his first of the season and his third in a row at the Sonoma event.

Born in Cottonwood, California, a three-hour drive north of San Francisco, Hubert began racing in NASCAR’s Featherlite Southwest Tour, a pavement Late Model division which ran on short tracks and road courses all over the west coast.  He made his series debut on July 25, 1987 at his hometrack, the 0.375-mile bullring of Shasta Speedway, and finished 9th in the field of 24.  In 1991, he made his first start at Sonoma when the series arrived as the companion event for the Winston Cup Series.  Again, Hubert impressed, leading 12 laps and finishing 4th in a race won by Ken Pederson.  From there, Sonoma became a favorite track for Hubert, as he seven of the next nine races there, winning the pole there in 1998.

At the same time, Hubert eyed a move up NASCAR’s ladder, and moved to Charlotte to pursue his dream.  He began as a pit crew member for various teams, including Bill Davis Racing and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.  He worked alongside Johnny Benson, Jr. during his own NASCAR career, first at Kurt Roehrig’s Truck Series team, where Hubert became shop foreman in 1997, and then as Benson’s tire changer at Bahari’ Racing, which fielded Benson’s #30 Pennzoil Pontiac.

In May 1997, Hubert returned to Sonoma to race in the Southwest Tour, then change Benson’s tires in Sunday’s Winston Cup race.  That weekend, he was tabbed by car owner Jim Wilson, whose team Triad Motorsports fielded the #78 Hanes / Diamond Rio Ford for Billy Standridge.  At the time, Wilson’s first full-season attempt in Cup wasn’t going very well.  Standridge had failed to qualify for six of the team’s first eight attempts and had finished no better than 21st in the other two.  With Standridge again struggling on the road course, Wilson tabbed Hubert to make sure it qualified.  Not only did Hubert succeed in this, but he put up the fastest time in second-round qualifying, putting #78 27th on the grid.  Impressed, Wilson let Hubert make his Cup debut that Sunday.  The driver recovered from two early spins and finished 28th in a field of 44.

News of Hubert’s performance reached his Truck Series boss Kurt Roehrig, who had the shop foreman replace Michael Dokken as driver of the team’s #18 Dana Corporation Dodge.  Hubert’s Truck debut came at the tough Colorado National Speedway on July 19, where he started 24th and finished 23rd.  The ride gave Hubert still another chance to race at Sonoma when the series made its own trip to the Bay Area in October.  There, he started 4th, led 14 laps during the middle stages, and finished 2nd, just under two seconds behind race winner Joe Ruttman.

1998 was Hubert’s biggest season yet.  In addition to his part-time efforts on the Southwest Tour, he’d been tabbed as Dale Phelon’s driver in the Truck Series, this time replacing Bryan Reffner in the #66 Carlin Burners & Controls Chevrolet.  Hubert began his run starting outside-pole at the Heartland Park Topeka road course, finished 5th at Gateway, then won the pole that fall at Sonoma.  He also made his first start in the NASCAR Winston West Series at Las Vegas, starting 11th and finishing runner-up to current Richard Childress Racing spotter Andy Houston.

During 1998’s annual Cup weekend at Sonoma, Hubert won the pole for the Southwest Series race and gave Kurt Roehrig his first Cup start in his first-ever attempt, snatching the 41st starting spot in the #19 Bradford White Ford.  Among the five drivers Hubert beat for the spot were Cup veterans Dave Marcis and Todd Bodine, road ringer Tommy Kendall, and current team owner Rick Ware.  Hubert got the white #19 into two more races the following year, a third-consecutive start at Sonoma joined by an impressive 4th-fastest time in qualifying at Las Vegas.  Only Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, and Joe Nemechek put in faster times.  Back at Sonoma the following year, Hubert nearly won the Southwest Tour race, leading 7 laps and running 2nd to Kurt Busch with two laps to go before transmission issues and a loose left-rear tire dropped him back to 14th.

While Hubert transitioned from Truck Series to XFINITY competition in 2000, running a brace of races that year for Bill Davis Racing in place of Mike Borkowski, the “road ringer” label came to define his Cup career.  While Jerry Nadeau started outside-pole at Sonoma in 1998 for the struggling Elliott-Marino Motorsports, it was Hubert who drove in Nadeau’s place at Watkins Glen.  He ran 36th in the #13 FirstPlus Financial Ford that day after a late crash tore the fender from his car.  His next two starts at The Glen came with Penske Racing, a 33rd in 2000 driving in place of the injured Jeremy Mayfield, and a 22nd in 2002 taking over for Hut Stricklin in Bill Davis Racing’s #23 Hills Brothers Coffee Dodge.  Then in 2004 came Kirk Shelmerdine.

In 1993, Shelmerdine left Richard Childress Racing as Dale Earnhardt’s championship crew chief to pursue his own racing career, working his way through ARCA and the short-lived NASCAR Sportsman Series.  By 2002, he had a Cup Series team of his own, though he could only run a partial schedule and would often “start-and-park” to save the team’s limited resources.  In 2004, when several teams closed their doors, Shelmerdine suddenly had the opportunity to run the entire schedule.  And when the series came to Sonoma, the short-tracker Shelmerdine elected to have Hubert rive.

Hubert got Shelmerdine’s #72 Freddie B’s Ford into the show at Sonoma, but he was flagged off the track after five laps for running too slow.  While driver and team improved at the much faster Watkins Glen that August, finishing just one lap down in 29th, the black Ford lost oil pressure at Sonoma in 2005, handing Hubert his second-straight last-place finish in the event.  Undaunted, driver and team would return once again in 2006.

48 drivers arrived to attempt the 43-car field for the Dodge / Save Mart 350.  Back in the same black Ford that he ran the previous two years, Hubert put up a strong run in Friday’s opening practice, ranking 35th on the charts with a lap of 90.921mph ahead of five other drivers who weren’t locked-in based on the old “Top 35” rule.  He then found even more speed in qualifying, putting up a lap of 91.265mph, good enough for 30th on the starting grid.  The run bumped from the field Travis Kvapil in Furniture Row’s #78 Chevrolet; three other “road ringers:” Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor Chris Cook in BAM Racing’s #49 DSI Dodge and both Front Row Motorsports cars with Grand-Am Corvette driver Johnny Miller in the #34 and Brian Simo in the #61, and second-generation racer Stanton Barrett.  Interush, the sponsor which backed Barrett’s brightly-colored #95 Chevrolet, then sponsored Hubert’s #72 as well as a young Californian named David Gilliland, who was making his Cup debut for Bryan Mullet after an upset XFINITY win that month at Kentucky.

On Saturday, Hubert skipped the Saturday morning practice, then ran slowest of the 40 cars to take time in Happy Hour.  He also ran the weekend’s companion race, the Blue Lizard Australian Suncream 200 for the Autozone West Series.  Driving the #10 Sunsweet Growers Dodge, Hubert started 11th and finished 5th in a race won by Cup regular Brian Vickers.

Starting 43rd and last for Sunday’s race was another local driver, Brandon Ash.  Ash, making his fourth Cup start and second of the season, was another impressive story in qualifying as he raced a 2004 Dodge into the field, his #02 sponsored by Sprinter Trucking, Inc.  During the pace laps, he was joined at the rear by rookie driver Martin Truex, Jr., who lost an engine on Dale Earnhardt, Inc.’s #1 Bass Pro Shops / Tracker Chevorlet.  Both held last for just a few seconds as a wild opening lap unfolded in front of them.  First to find trouble was outside-polesitter Jamie McMurray, who clipped the curb with his #26 Crown Royal Ford and spun through the dirt.  The cloud of dust caused Dale Jarrett to rear-end the #43 Cheerios Dodge of Bobby Labonte, who fell to last just behind McMurray.

As polesitter Kurt Busch gapped the field behind him, 18th-place starter Ken Schrader was working his way through the Esses, his #21 Little Debbie Ford trying to hold off the hard-charging Carl Edwards in the #99 Office Depot Ford.  Just before the drop at Turn 8 into Turn 9, Edwards loosened Schrader’s car, sending him into a spin.  The field scattered behind Schrader as they entered the blind corner, trying to figure out where the #21 would stop.  At the time, Hubert was racing Sterling Marlin for 29th when Schrader slid directly in Marlin’s path.  The two cars smashed head-on into the right-rear of Schrader’s car, destroying all three cars and forcing a red flag.  While all three drivers walked away, all three were also done for the afternoon.

40th went to Robby Gordon, whose #7 Menards / Energizer Chevrolet suffered damage, then crashed on the hairpin entrance to pit road in the closing laps.  Rounding out the Bottom Five was Dave Blaney, who broke the driveshaft on Bill Davis Racing’s #22 Caterpillar Dodge.

As of this writing, the 2006 race at Sonoma was Hubert’s final Cup start.  He attempted to qualify for Shelmerdine two more times, but missed the cut at Watkins Glen in August 2006, then again in a new “Car of Tomorrow” at Sonoma in 2009.  His most recent XFINITY starts came during the ’09 season – a 41st at Watkins Glen and a 43rd at Montreal.  His most recent start in what is now the K&N Pro Series West also came in 2009, where he finished 7th of 40 drivers in the #25 Red Line Oil / Hall Fabrication / Muscle Milk Ford.

*Hubert is one of only three Cup Series drivers to finish last at the same track in three consecutive years.  The other two came after Hubert’s feat.  Joe Nemechek finished last at Fontana in the fall races of 2007 and 2008, then the spring race in 2009.  Michael McDowell finished last in three straight Chicagoland races in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
*This marked the second and, to date, most recent last-place finish for the #27 in a Cup Series race at Sonoma.

43) #27-Tom Hubert / 0 laps / crash
42) #14-Sterling Marlin / 0 laps / crash
41) #21-Ken Schrader / 0 laps / crash
40) #7-Robby Godon / 74 laps / crash
39) #22-Dave Blaney / 79 laps / driveshaft

*1997 Save Mart Supermarkets 300 at Sonoma, ESPN
*1999 Snap-On 200 at Sonoma, ESPN (posted on YouTube by Michael McIntyre)
*2006 Dodge / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, FOX
*Harris, Mike. “Never heard of Tom Hubert? He’s starting fourth at Las Vegas,” Star-News, March 7, 1999.
*Jayski’s Silly Season Site

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