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.

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