Sunday, November 8, 2020

CUP: Quin Houff prevails in thrilling last-place battle against LaJoie and Hill

PHOTO: @StarcomRacing

Quin Houff picked up the 3rd last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Season Finale 500 at the Phoenix Raceway when his #00 Creek Enterprises Chevrolet fell out with handling issues after 149 of 312 laps.

The finish, which came in Houff’s 53rd series start, was his second of the year and first since Pocono, 22 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 28th for the #00, the 53rd from handling issues, and the 799th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 43rd for the #00, the 124th from handling, and the 1,759th for Chevrolet.

On July 19th at Texas, Houff became the center of controversy when he made a late entrance to pit road, triggering a multi-car accident that collected Matt DiBenedetto and Christopher Bell. While the accident raised criticisms over a full-time Cup Series driver with no Truck Series starts and only ten in XFINITY, it also marked a turning point in the rookie’s career. Heading into the season finale at Phoenix, Texas was Houff’s only DNF in the 21 races since his last-place run at Pocono. In that time, he also set a new career-best 23rd at Indianapolis, where he slowed to avoid the day’s big wreck on pit road. He matched this under the lights at Daytona, then exceeded it with a 13th in Talladega.

For Phoenix, Houff would drive a brand-new car with a new body on it. He’d be sponsored by Creek Enterprises, which earlier this year sponsored his StarCom Racing entry at Kentucky, the Michigan double-header, and at Kansas. Also joining the effort was the Sungate Kids Foundation for victims of child abuse. The names of 19 donors to the organization were added to the lower rear quarter-panels on both sides. This panel was pushed in during the early laps, moments before Joey Logano pulled up on Houff down the backstretch to clear a piece of debris off his grille. Houff would start the race in 34th.

Rolling off 39th and last was Garrett Smithley, who brought his sponsorship from Victory Lane Quick Oil Change to Tommy Baldwin Racing’s #7 Chevrolet. He’d be joined by two drivers sent to the rear for pre-race penalties, both for inspection failures – 35th-place Brennan Poole in the #15 Goettl Chevrolet and, most significantly, polesitter Chase Elliott in the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet. Poole slotted in behind Elliott, and by the end of Lap 1, the #9 had climbed to 35th spot. Last place then fell back to Smithley, who dropped to 9.277 seconds back of the lead on Lap 4.

On Lap 8, as Smithley was sizing up new 38th-place runner Joey Gase in the #51 Donate Life Arizona Ford, NASCAR alerted Ryan Preece that he had a right-front tire rub on his #37 Honey Nut Cheerios Chevrolet. Preece made an unscheduled green-flag stop for right-side tires and minor repairs, which dropped him to last on Lap 11 and off the lead lap. Preece then lost a second lap on the 14th circuit as the leaders caught him in Turn 3.

Next to join the battle was Timmy Hill, already crowned the 2020 LASTCAR Cup Series Champion last week in Martinsville. On Lap 26, Hill’s #66 Toyota dropped to 38th, three laps down, then took over last on Lap 27. Hill’s car had been trailing smoke, and the crew attended to a power steering issue. He returned to the race by the Lap 30 competition caution, but was already six laps down. Hill remained in last place into the middle stages, and by Lap 115 said he was unsure he could meet the minimum sped of 30.60 seconds. On Lap 124, Hill was cleared to come down pit road for more repairs.

Houff entered the last-place battle around this time, and on the same 124th lap was already eight laps down in 38th. “Doesn’t feel right,” said Houff on Lap 126. The crew then responded, “Then bring it in!” The team looked over the track bar while, on Lap 128, Hill returned to the track. Three circuits later, Hill was again vocal on the radio. “We've got a big problem, coming to you. . .something's loose in the housing,” said Hill that time by. “Rear end housing is shifting.” The spotter couldn’t see the issue, but Hill continued to struggle, dropping 13 laps down by Lap 139.

By then, Houff was still in 38th, and was now 11 down, just two laps ahead of Hill. Houff had gone to the garage as the driver said it was laying over on the left-front and the steering was tightening up. On top of this, Houff would also say the car jumped out on him as if an axle was broken, and also felt a vibration. The team wondered if it was a power steering issue similar to Hill, but Houff said the steering wasn’t getting progressively worse. These repairs dropped Houff to last on Lap 143 as Hill continued to try and meet minimum speed.

Yet another challenger then arrived as Corey LaJoie pulled into the garage around Lap 145. LaJoie’s Go FAS Racing team was making its final start as a full-time team, and LaJoie himself was turning his last laps as driver of their #32 Pala Casino Ford. Radio transmissions indicated a possible axle issue, which soon dropped him behind Hill into 38th spot. With Houff’s car still behing worked on a few stalls away, the two cars were 17 laps apart.

Houff’s crew removed the front wheels to check for leaks in the shocks, then on Lap 164 had him return to the track under caution. Houff said “nothing’s changed,” but continued to close in on LaJoie to drop the #32 into last place. He finally did so on Lap 184, but returned to the garage a second time just moments later. By then, Houff was just four laps ahead of LaJoie, meaning if the #32 could just run a few laps, they could avoid the last-place finish. On Lap 200, NASCAR’s official in the garage made a report, which the tower told him to wait on until after the restart. On Lap 202, the message was completed – “00 out, handling.” An instant later, LaJoie passed Houff for last place, and LaJoie continued on 53 laps down.

LaJoie never climbed higher than 38th, however, and ultimately dropped out inside the final 100 laps with suspension issues. Hill, meanwhile, climbed to 36th, the last car under power, a full 24 laps back of the lead. The last car Hill passed was last-place starter Smithley, who cited rear end trouble on the #7. Rounding out the group was Josh Bilicki, whose turn in the #77 DECK Leadership Chevrolet left him 35th, eight laps ahead of Hill, after early radio issues.

Among the many lasts in Sunday’s race were the final starts for both Germain Racing and Leavine Family Racing, two single-car teams with a combined 681 Cup starts dating back to 2009. Unfortunately, both teams would end their careers without a victory in a points-paying Cup race. Christopher Bell finished best of the two in 17th, driving the #95 Rheem / Smurfit Kappa Toyota. Ty Dillon, running Germain’s #13 GEICO Chevrolet, took 21st. Both took the checkered flag one lap down.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #00 in a Cup Series race at Phoenix since April 23, 2005, when Carl Long’s #00 Buyer’s Choice Auto Warranties Chevrolet lost the engine after 52 laps of the Subway Fresh 500.
*Houff is the first driver to finish last in a Cup race at Phoenix due to handling issues since October 25, 1998, when Brett Bodine’s #11 Paychex Ford dropped out after 46 laps of the Dura Lube / Kmart 500.

39) #00-Quin Houff / 149 laps / handling
38) #32-Corey LaJoie / 215 laps / suspension
37) #7-Garrett Smithley / 261 laps / rear end
36) #66-Timmy Hill / 288 laps / running
35) #77-Josh Bilicki / 296 laps / running

1st) JTG-Daugherty Racing (7)
2nd) Motorsports Business Management, Rick Ware Racing (6)
3rd) Chip Ganassi Racing (3)
4th) Hendrick Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing, Penske Racing, StarCom Racing (2)
5th) Beard Motorsports, B.J. McLeod Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Spire Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (23)
2nd) Toyota (9)
3rd) Ford (4)


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