By Cole Cusumano
On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series returned to action after a two-month hiatus, along with StarCom Racing and Quin Houff’s quest for a Rookie of the Year bid. The 22-year-old entered The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in a highly unique situation. Out of all 40 drivers competing at the 1.366-mile venue, Houff was the only one to have no experience at that track – at all.
To make things even a bit more challenging, due to NASCAR’s one-day event policy in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Houff’s first time turning laps at Darlington would come on Sunday afternoon when the green flag waved.
“I’ve been putting in as much work as I can leading into Sunday to be as comfortable as I can be,” Houff told Popular Speed.
The Virginia-native spent his time away from racing by working part-time at his family’s trucking shop and training with simulators — something he’d never done until Sim Sets built him one over the break.
“The guys are obviously putting in a lot of work on our cars and trying to get them in a good position for me to go out there and be able to learn the track and make some adjustments pretty quick to where we can hit the ground running,” he commented.
Things started out promising for Houff, after starting the race in the 27th position by virtue of a random draw; his highest since 25th at Kansas Speedway last year. That feeling of promise quickly faded after a fuel pump failure plagued the No. 00’s efforts on Lap 30.
The good news for the StarCom Racing team is that they’ll get another crack at ‘The Lady in Black’ on Wednesday. In fact, they have to turn around and compete in three races in the next eight days. With a total of four events in 11 days with no practice or qualifying (time trials for Coca-Cola 600 being the exception), in addition to never racing at Darlington, just how much pressure is riding on Houff?
“Obviously there’s more pressure on everybody when you don’t get practice or qualifying,” Houff admitted. “There’s more pressure on the teams to get the cars right for the drivers to go out there and know what to expect to happen going into Turn One. It’s more pressure on the drivers after a two-month hiatus not to have much rust on you and just start ripping the wall at Darlington right out the gates.”
As for the seemingly rigorous condensed schedule for May after a 10-week break, the driver of the No. 00 believes it’s not much of a different position than he’s been in. Houff is currently in the midst of his first full-time season of competition after racing part-time the past three years in Cup, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the ARCA Menards Series.If you pair this with the fact that he’s just 22 years of age, Houff believes the month of May could prove to be advantageous for the younger drivers. He plans to “ride the young wave” as long as possible in this scenario.
“I think I can recover a little quicker than some guys can at this point, but it’s going to take a lot of physical and mental strenuation,” Houff revealed. “There might be a slight advantage with that, but all these guys are in phenomenal shape and they’ve been doing this long enough. I think we’re all well prepared to pull this off, but I don’t think there’s going to be a single driver coming out of that second Charlotte race that’s not a little bit tired.”
In contrast to the pros of being a part-time driver in this extenuating circumstance, there is one area where Houff is lacking – seat time. Specifically, at nine tracks (Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval included). He may not have the on-track opportunities as his fellow competitors, but he has a lifetime of experience to lean on in his “family” at StarCom Racing.
For starters, 1990 Daytona 500 Champion, Derrike Cope, is at the helm of the franchise that was established in 2017. With the job title “Team Manager,” the three-time NASCAR National Series winner has been hailed as the Captain of the No. 00, who plays a crucial role in just about every aspect of the car.
There’s also Favian Vanderburg. Hungry for more knowledge beyond being a tire carrier and jackman, the pit crew member turned tire specialist has been in the sport for the better part of 15 years. His racing roots stem even further, tracing back to as far as 1986 when Vanderburg attended his first race at Darlington to watch his father drag race.
Although only his second year at StarCom Racing, Vanderburg understands the importance of team chemistry and feels right at home with Houff and the rest of the crew.
“Quin is not like most drivers,” Vanderburg said. “A lot of the time, it comes down to him traveling with us. This team is bonding and it’s about getting that confidence within each other, knowing that the guy beside you is going to do the best he can to his ability. That’s what makes a team sport wonderful like NASCAR. You still need to come together as a team, but each individual has got to make sure that they’re locked and loaded on what they have to do and perform.”
Along with Vanderburg, engine tuner, Ben Morris, plays another integral role at the young race team. Although only his first year at StarCom Racing, Morris began his career in NASCAR in 2003 at Bill Davis Racing developing motors for Toyota as they were transitioning to become the first foreign manufacturer in the sport. While he predominantly worked on Toyotas, Morris is thrilled to be with his new team, as Chevrolet has been a family tradition since the beginning.
In his first year at StarCom Racing, Morris must get acclimated to a relatively unique environment. This is the smallest team he’s worked for and they’ve instilled a great deal of trust in the sport’s veteran.
“The good thing about working with StarCom is these guys own their own engines,” Morris said.
Most teams in NASCAR obtain their engines through a lease program. In doing so, the engine companies send engine tuners to the shops to service the motors. Being that StarCom Racing owns their own engines, the responsibility lies on Morris to get the job done — slightly more added pressure that he’s more than happy to tackle.
“I have to spend the time to make sure that we are doing everything that we can from the engine owner’s standpoint to take care of our product,” Morris revealed. “It’s basically visual inspections after each race with hopefully limited failure analysis, because we want to use the durable consumables as long as possible, but yet we don’t want them to fail in a race.”
With no practice or qualifying sessions for the following three races, the roles of Vanderburg and Morris change drastically. Their two areas of expertise rely heavily on input from on-track data. This can especially be said in the case for Houff, who has a history of limited seat time. This is where his tire specialist and engine tuner must come together and use their years of experience to produce race ready equipment.
“I just got to make sure I’m eyeing my sets right, because usually when you get your sets of tires, you have softer or harder spring rates that tend to free up or tighten the car,” Vanderburg revealed. “We don’t have time to dial it in. I got to make sure I pay attention to what that car is going through from a physical standpoint and also hearing what going on, on the track. It’s going to be very, very intense, especially with being off for a while. It’s one of those things where I can not afford to have a bad day. Where I had practice and qualifying to lean on, I don’t have that anymore, so it’s going to be me, the crew chief, Derrike and even the driver, we all need to put our heads collectively together and come up with a solution if we do have a problem.”
On a typical race weekend for Morris, on-track activity is essential for ensuring the durability of the engines. In what’s normally a stress-free day of preparing the motor after analyzing data, now turns to an event of potential distress.
“I have the opportunity to change fueling in the race car, and a lot of engine parameters based on driver input and track data that’s downloaded after every outing,” Morris said. “Since we don’t have that available now, we are chassis-dynoing it (simulator) and we’re going to do all of the final adjustments, mapping, anything engine tuning related prior to the car going to the race track. It can be a catastrophe waiting to happen if something at the last moment ends up failing.There’s also a certain level of paranoia there, because you’re going to have limited to no time to fix it.”
For Houff, the focus lies solely on improving one race at a time. Next up is the 500 kilometer race at Darlington on Wednesday night.
“To be able to go back there and learn what we learned Sunday, and then turn back around and apply it Wednesday is going to be pretty refreshing,” Houff said. “For us as a team at StarCom Racing, I think it’s going to give us a lot of confidence in ourselves and in our notebooks heading into the rest of the season. We had learned a lot through the first four races that we’re looking forward to applying and getting going seeing what we can do.”
Looking beyond Darlington, the 22-year-old should feel a bit more at ease going into the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The crowned jewel event last year is the sight of his best career finish to date at the Cup level. Houff started the race in 39th and ended up in the 28th position when the checkered flag waved.
“I look forward to going there, conquering that challenge again and hopefully improving on what we had last year,” Houff said. “You still get to turn it around and go racing again Wednesday. Hopefully you’ll be able to apply what you learned in the 600 better on the 500k race Wednesday night.”
As for the remainder of Houff’s first full-time season, he’s still got six more tracks to tackle without any prior racing experience. Luckily for him he has the backing of some of the most talented and stronghearted people in the sport. While it will be a challenge to best the likes of Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer or Christopher Bell for Rookie of the Year, as we’ve seen throughout the sport’s history, almost anything is possible in NASCAR.
“It’s going to be tough, but Quin is who we got in that seat and we got 110% belief in him,” Vanderburg stated. “That’s all it takes, having people in your corner and having a lot of good mojo going for you. That tends to happen when you have a lot of solid support and great foundation like StarCom Racing.”
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