Sunday, June 30, 2019

CUP: On night of Bowman’s first win, Quin Houff the first NASCAR driver to finish last due to track bar issue

PHOTO: @P1_Houff
Quin Houff picked up the 1st last-place finish of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Camping World 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway when his #77 Sleep6 Chevrolet fell out with track bar issues after 100 of 267 laps.

The finish came in Houff’s ninth series start. In the Cup Series last-place rankings, it was the 32nd for the #77 and the 765th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 45th for the #77 and the 1,667th for Chevrolet. And it was the first-ever time a driver in any of NASCAR’s top three series was classified last in a points-paying race by reason of “track bar.”

A 21-year-old son of an agricultural businessman from Weyers Cave, Virginia, Houff has been racing for more than half his young life. He was a quick study in go-karts, taking not only Rookie of the Year, but twenty race wins and the championship. He’s held a NASCAR license since he was fourteen, and at seventeen was signed by Rob Fuller’s LFR Driver Development Group. This moved him to Super Late Models, where he won in just his fifth series start at the Tri-County Motor Speedway. It also opened opportunities to advance into professional stock car racing.

At the time, Houff had made a lone K&N Pro Series East start at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway, where in 2014 he finished 21st – next-to-last – in a car owned by Cup veteran Ken Schrader. He also finished 11th in the 2015 edition of the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown in Richmond, beating not only Hamlin himself, but Hermie Sadler, David Ragan, and Chase Elliott. Houff’s car carried pink logos that read “BeatinCancer,” a cause that has affected him significantly. Both Houff’s mother and grandmother are fighting the disease, and have made use of aggressive treatments from the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina. This is why many of Houff’s cars soon carried the phrase “BeatinCancer with Duke.”

Houff’s first ARCA Menards Series start at Daytona in 2017 nearly ended with the “BeatinCancer” car in victory lane. Driving for Mason Mitchell, Houff went from 16th on the grid to the lead on Lap 22, then led 23 of 75 laps before he was collected in a late-race crash. Four more ARCA starts followed in 2018 with a best of 6th in Charlotte. At the same time, Houff enjoyed a strong debut in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, finishing 15th at Bristol, then 12th in his third start at Iowa. Both came driving for Precision Performance Motorsports, a single-car effort founded by Rick Gdovic. When PPM shut down, Houff also turned heads with JD Motorsports, finishing 14th at Kansas just last fall.

This year sees Houff make the jump to Cup Series competition for the very first time. The opportunity came about following last year’s closure of Furniture Row Racing, and the sale of much of its assets, including the Charter, to the Spire Entertainment Group. Spire Motorsports was thus founded, campaigning the car #77 that Furniture Row briefly fielded for Erik Jones in 2017. Instead of Toyota prepared in Furniture Row’s shop near Denver, the team would collaborate with Jay Robinson’s Premium Motorsports and field identical black Chevrolets to the ones currently run by Ross Chastain and Reed Sorenson. The rims used by Premium show this three-car partnership with stickers showing the #77 alongside Chastain’s #15 and Sorenson’s #27.

Multiple drivers would run the Spire #77 in 2019, with Houff’s part-time schedule starting at the ISM Raceway. Carrying sponsorship from Premium backer Rim Ryderz, Houff started next-to-last in the 36-car field and climbed to 30th by the checkered flag. Heading into Sunday’s race, Houff had finished better than that only twice – a season-best 28th in the Coca-Cola 600, followed by a 29th at Pocono. But he’d also failed to finish just one of his eight series starts – Dover, where he was flagged off the track for running too slow after earlier contact with the outside wall.

Chicagoland saw Houff debut new sponsorship from mattress company He began the weekend slowest in both practices despite 44 combined laps turned, then managed to climb two spots to 36th in qualifying with a lap of 168.188mph (32.107 seconds). He then gained another spot to 35th early Sunday after 22nd-place starter Matt Tifft saw his time disallowed after his car failed its first pass through inspection. Tifft’s car passed on the second go-round, and the #36 Louis Kemp Crab Delights Ford was officially credited with the 38th and final starting spot.

Two more drivers would join Tifft at the back of the field. William Byron qualified 11th, but had to change engines on his #24 Liberty University Chevrolet. Corey LaJoie was sent back for changing the transmission on the #32 Prospr Ford, costing him 30th on the grid.

During the opening pace laps, Tifft briefly stopped his #36 on the backstretch to straighten the steering wheel. As he caught the tail end of the field, Reed Sorenson dropped behind him. Sorenson’s #27 Chevrolet was going to start last prior to Tifft’s penalty as he’d turned the slowest lap in qualifying. Tifft then moved up another spot when the penalized Byron dropped from the 11th spot and was instructed to take the lower line. Unlike many times before, where smaller teams drop behind faster penalized cars prior to the start, Byron remained in 38th for the green flag, impressive since he’d ultimately lead nine laps and finish 8th.

When the green flag dropped, Byron moved to the high lane and drove around Sorenson entering Turn 1. From there, Sorenson gradually lost touch with the pack, dropping to 13.1 seconds back of the lead after the completion of the sixth circuit. Sorenson was a whole corner behind new 37th-place runner Josh Bilicki in Rick Ware Racing’s #53 Chevrolet when the first caution came for an approaching lightning storm. Sorenson followed the field down pit road just before heavy rains soaked the track, forcing a delay of more than three hours.

When the caution came out in early evening, Sorenson stayed out while a number of other drivers pulled down pit road. This caused last place to change hands between Tifft, Chris Buescher’s #37 Maxwell House / USO Chevrolet, then 13th-place starter Chase Elliott in the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Elliott’s stop proved the slowest of all as the team spent nearly a minute working on the left-front suspension. Elliott returned to the track on the lead lap, 65.7 seconds back of the leader, and both Sorenson and Ross Chastain’s #15 Low T Centers Chevrolet dropped behind Elliott just before the start.

Once again, Sorenson held down last on the restart, but this time caught another Rick Ware Racing car, the #51 Jacob Companies Ford of B.J. McLeod. The two raced side-by-side off Turn 4 and across the stripe before McLeod pulled ahead down the backstretch. Once again, Sorenson lost touch with the pack, and began to complain about the car’s handling. At the start of Lap 30, Sorenson was entering Turn 1 as the leaders crossed the stripe. The next time by, race leader Kevin Harvick zipped by him up high, followed by second-place Ryan Blaney down low, and the #27 became the first car one lap down.

Sorenson lost a second lap by the 42nd circuit, and now reported his car had no rear grip. The crew, concerned he would get run over by faster traffic, urged their driver to pit. He didn’t do so until Lap 44, and spent an extended period of time in his stall, one of the last before pit exit. Anxious to return, Sorenson drove off, but was told to stop and back up. The crew jacked the car up again, looking over how many lug nuts were on the wheels, then sent him back out. By then, he’d dropped five laps down as he accelerated down the backstretch.

Wheel and tire problems then reared their ugly head, dropping several front-runners to the rear. Ty Dillon qualified 20th in his #13 GEICO Military Chevrolet, but lost two laps when he had to make an unscheduled stop for a loose wheel. Issues remained after the stop, and Dillon spent a brief stay in the garage, dropping him six down by Lap 60 and taking last from Sorenson. That same time by, Dillon pulled behind the wall a second time and spent more than twenty laps there, leading to the end of Stage 1. The car re-fired on Lap 80 and returned to action 26 laps back in last place. The Germain Racing team would treat the rest of the race as a test session.

The same lap Dillon returned to the track, chaos ensued as both Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch suffered blown tires. Bowyer’s #14 Toco Warranty Ford suffered the worst damage of the two, spinning through the grass with a destroyed right-rear quarter-panel. After the restart, Bowyer said the right-rear was still rubbing on the tire, and the team elected to add another brace to push the bodywork from the tire. A second blown right-rear sent Bowyer onto pit road on Lap 97, and the brace was added on Lap 104, when he pitted before pit road was open.

Houff’s entry into the last-place battle came as Bowyer pulled into his stall. That same moment, Houff was being pushed back from his stall, complaining of a mechanical issue under the rear of the car. The team went to the garage, where they found a weld had failed in the rear track bar assembly. “The sleeve broke at the weld,” said a crewman. Unable to complete repairs at the track, the Spire team elected to call it a night. “We’re done,” said another crewman on Lap 106. “We can’t fix that.” At the time, Houff was in 34th, six laps down, and 22 laps from taking last from Ty Dillon, who was still on the track.

Another challenger then appeared on Lap 108, when McLeod pulled the #51 into the garage directly next to Houff. This allowed the lapped McLeod to take 37th between the retired Houff and the still-running Dillon. If the Rick Ware Racing team couldn’t complete repairs, and if Dillon completed enough laps, the #51 would finish last for the third-straight Cup race and fourth in the last six. This was averted on Lap 121, when McLeod re-fired the engine and returned to the track. On the same lap as Houff, McLeod dropped Houff to 37th just seconds later, and it was now down to Houff and Dillon. On Lap 130, Dillon made it official, dropping Houff to last place.

Bowyer became the night’s only other retiree, ending his night due to the same crash damage that had slowed his #14 to finish 37th. This lifted McLeod to 36th, Dillon to 35th, and Sorenson rounded out the Bottom Five in 34th.

For more on Quin Houff, check out his website here.

Taking the checkered flag on Sunday was Alex Bowman, his first in his 134th Cup Series start. In that career, Bowman has been featured in six LASTCAR articles, most recently his wrecks in the 2018 edition of the All-Star Race and at Kentucky. Since 2014, when he began running full-time for underfunded BK Racing alongside fellow rookie Ryan Truex, to a difficult tenure with Tommy Baldwin Racing that saw him battle Landon Cassill for the 2015 LASTCAR Cup Series Championship, Bowman prevailed through adversity. In 2016, he was tabbed by Hendrick Motorsports to drive in relief of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and nearly won just his ninth time out at Phoenix. In this, just his second full-time year with Hendrick, Bowman scored three consecutive runner-up finishes at Talladega, Dover, and a bitter loss to Brad Keselowski in Kansas. And in a tight battle with Kyle Larson, who nearly took the win away with eight laps to go, Bowman prevailed, winning by just over half a second. Congratulations to Bowman and the #88 team on a victory well-deserved.

*This marked the first Cup Series last-place finish for the #77 since July 16, 2017, when Erik Jones’ 5-hour Energy Toyota crashed after 40 laps of the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire. The number had finished last in a Cup race at Chicagoland just once prior – July 10, 2005, when Travis Kvapil picked up his first Cup Series last-place run after engine trouble on his Jasper Engines / Kodak Dodge 13 laps into the USG Sheetrock 400.
*All three last-place finishers last week at Chicagoland picked up their first career last-place finishes in their respective series (joined by Ben Rhodes in Trucks and Christopher Bell in XFINITY).

38) #77-Quin Houff / 100 laps / track bar
37) #14-Clint Bowyer / 172 laps / crash
36) #51-B.J. McLeod / 238 laps / running
35) #13-Ty Dillon / 239 laps / running
34) #27-Reed Sorenson / 249 laps / running

1st) Rick Ware Racing (5)
2nd) Front Row Motorsports (3)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing (2)
4th) Germain Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Motorsports Business Management, Richard Childress Racing, Spire Motorsports (1)

1st) Chevrolet (9)
2nd) Ford (6)
3rd) Toyota (2)


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