Since breaking into the NASCAR Cup Series part-time in 2019 and full-time in 2020, I don’t think any driver has had more people question whether they belong in the NASCAR Cup Series — fairly, or unfairly — than Virginia’s Quin Houff.
However, despite the backlash he has received since entering the NASCAR Cup Series, Houff, 23, is steadfast in his march toward helping his No. 00 StarCom Racing team become more competitive, and on Tuesday, Houff sat down with TobyChristie.com to discuss the stigma that has followed him around the past two years and a brand-new 11-race sponsorship deal with 8-Ball Chocolate Whiskey.
“Yeah, you know we’ve been itching to get this one out,” Houff stated with pride of his new partnership. “It’s really cool to have 8-Ball Chocolate Whiskey come on board and be a part of their team and help continue to grow their brand.”
For Houff, the deal blossomed after he discovered the drink while on the West Coast swing in 2020. After reaching out to the owner of the company, Houff and StarCom Racing incredibly struck a deal.
“You know, it’s just crazy how some of these things come about. Just kind of fate in all reality,” Houff explained. “Paul Thomas out in Southern California created 8-Ball Chocolate Whiskey and I ran into the product while I was out there on the west coast swing last year before COVID. I got in contact with him and he believes in what we’re doing. He believes in hard work and being a grinder and that’s kind of his motto and what we’re doing as well. It’s cool to bring a new sponsor to the sport and continue to help grow both of our brands.”
The brand is cool, and their logo, which features a big, bold black billiards 8-ball really has Houff excited for the possibilities as far as merchandise and apparel.
“It’s crazy, the 8-ball logo is just so recognizable,” said Houff. “Just for anybody. And I think the — obviously — the race car looks great and it’s going to be fun to carry that brand around and create some cool swag with it.”
Houff explains that not only is the sponsorship a cool activation for the team, but the insurgence of cash from the deal will also help the No. 00 car continue to shore up the aerodynamic disadvantages that they’ve been dealing with since the upper-tier Chevrolet teams left them behind by moving to an improved body style for the 2020 season.
“You know, I think it’s just going to kind of help maintain the track that we’re on with the program we have running. We’ve been doing a lot of updates specifically for the body with getting new Chevy bodies on from the 2018-19 body and shifting over to the 2021 bodies that some of the bigger teams got to run last year,” Houff said. “Putting more of those on. Just trying to get as much aero help as we can get especially at these mile and half tracks and superspeedways. I think that will help us get around the straightaways a little bit better.”
While Houff’s team continues to try to add more speed, they will hope to shake off the horrid luck they’ve had to start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. Two races into the year, and Houff has two DNF(did not finish)s.
In the season-opening Daytona 500, Houff felt he had himself in a position to score a decent finish for his underdog team. They had missed the huge crash on lap 14, and after a nearly six-hour weather delay, Houff was biding his time until the end, where he was planning on making a push toward the front.
“Yeah, you know the Daytona 500 is all about surviving to the end of that long race. And that was the mindset we had,” Houff said. “I felt like we had a pretty good race car that could suck up really well and run the top well. We had a little trouble running the bottom, but early in that race, we missed the first big wreck and I felt like we were sitting in a good position.”
Unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to try.
William Byron’s No. 24 car was involved heavily in the big-one on lap 14, and upon returning to the track, his No. 24 car began to shred huge pieces of debris. Running at nearly 200-miles-per-hour, Houff took a huge shot to the windshield. It was a massive piece of metal from the No. 24 car.
“Yeah, I don’t know exactly what piece fell off,” Houff questioned. “The No. 24 was throwing quite a bit off of his car. All I could see, a really big piece came off and hit me directly in the driver side and scuffed up the windshield really bad. I didn’t think it was going to be too big of a problem, it was just something I was having to look around or look underneath of going down the straightaways.”
A few moments later, a tire would shred on Houff’s No. 00 machine, which would cause him to crash and end his day.
Many criticized NASCAR for not throwing the caution flag for debris — including StarCom Racing on Twitter — but Houff says NASCAR is in a no-win situation when it comes to debris cautions.
“I feel like NASCAR obviously, they’re always put in a position that no one would want to be in with some of these things,” Houff sympathized. “At some of these big tracks, like the 2.5-mile superspeedways or the big road course this past weekend, it’s really tough to be able to indicate if that piece of debris is in the way or is going to cause any problems during the race. In a situation in the Daytona 500, it wasn’t a situation where the debris was just sitting in the race track, it was being thrown off by a car that didn’t have stuff secured well. They had tried to black flag the No. 24, from what I understand, but he was still on track when it started flying off.
“You can’t really point fingers at anybody, it’s just part of racing. You’re going to have some rubbing and some fenders get loose and they’re going to come off. And it’s a judgement call on the officiating side on whether or not those pieces of debris are going to be impeding the racing surface.”
This past week at the Daytona Road Course, the engine in Houff’s No. 00 machine expired early causing him to finish dead-last.
It’s a less than ideal start to the year for anyone, but especially Houff — who has more detractors than anyone in the garage. His team had made improvements in the offseason, and Houff badly wanted to prove his doubters wrong.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s really tough,” Houff said.
The big knock on Houff is that he had virtually no NASCAR National Series experience (just 10 NASCAR Xfinity Series starts between 2017 and 2018) before going NASCAR Cup Series racing in 2019. For those who are upset that Houff is in the Cup Series, while other experienced drivers find themselves on the sidelines, Houff says don’t hate the player. Hate the game.
“Like you said, our sport is interesting because there isn’t a defined regulation or ladder to say when somebody should be eligible to run at what level,” Houff explained. “Ultimately, as a race car driver, it’s my job to get to the top level and to get the most bang for the buck as far as for my sponsors and exposure for the budget we have to work on. And that’s what I did. I worked diligently with NASCAR coming through the ARCA Series and the Xfinity Series on what qualifications I needed to hit to run what size of track. I stayed in touch with them on a week-to-week basis to see what we could do next.
“Once a Cup opportunity opened up, I contacted NASCAR and started running Cup. Because that’s where everyone wants to be, right? Every driver’s ultimate goal is to be one of 40 running in the Cup Series. I just tried to get there as quick as I could with the sponsorship budget I had.”
Houff then pointed to the same drivers that fans are upset about not being in the Cup Series as examples for why he felt the sense of urgency to take the express route to the premier series of NASCAR.
“I understand some of the backlash of it. Is there some of the experience that I probably needed to gain before I got there? Yes. At the same time, how many talents and how many drivers do you see that spend too much time at a lower level and never get the opportunity to go to the Cup level because the funding goes away because of sponsorship or whatever reason?” Houff quizzed. “Getting to the Cup level, for a guy like me, who is on a limited budget and didn’t come from a racing background and doesn’t have the name, I felt it was really key for me to get there as quick as I could to get in that garage and make my name known. And I’m very humbled to be able to do so, and I feel like I have the ability to do so. Obviously, there are teams that have decided that I could be that person for them and I am forever grateful for that.”
Houff also picked about the worst possible season to be an inexperienced driver competing in his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic halted qualifying and practice at nearly every race track. That meant for Houff, no extra seat time before a race to actually learn the car or the racetrack.
“And nobody can predict a pandemic at the same time during your rookie season,” said Houff. “You’re now forcing rookies to learn under green flag circumstances. And that’s very tough. I’m going to make mistakes and I’m going to learn from those mistakes. As well as just laps and experience. These road course races, it’s all new to me.”
At Texas Motor Speedway last July, Houff drew the ire of nearly the entire industry with a total rookie maneuver. He knifed his No. 00 car from the top lane in turn three, all way to the bottom of the track off turn four in an effort to get to pit road. Only problem? Christopher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto were down there battling for position.
This crash changed everything.
Quin Houff crashing while trying to pit. pic.twitter.com/wszQbNvzjk
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) July 20, 2020
“Yeah, you know with the Texas incident, it was hands down a bonehead move,” Houff admitted. “There were so many things that went wrong from the communication standpoints. The mirror on the window net side falling off early in the race. I was put in a perfect storm to fail and I failed. It was a bonehead move. However, I came out and said that, and was up front with that and I didn’t try to hide from that. But at the same time, I know I’m not the first driver to ever do that and I know I’m not the last driver to ever do that. It was just my job to take credit for what I did wrong and go back with my team to find out what went wrong to make it never happen again. That’s what we did. The fact that the media or other names want to come out at me, they’re going to make mistakes too. It’s human error. We’re out here running 400-500-600 mile races for 38 weeks a year, side-by-side, you’re going to have accidents.”
In an instant, Houff went from being an invisible rookie trying to gain experience, to being the idiot who made a bad move on the sport’s biggest stage. The group at Door Bumper Clear had a field day with him. Brad Keselowski questioned whether there should be a demotion system in place for drivers who crash too often in Cup. The heat was on.
But then, Houff finished out his season clean from there, and when you look at his body of work from 2020, he really wasn’t involved in many incidents.
According to the TobyChristie.com incident tracker, Houff tied for the 28th-most incidents in the 2020 season with seven. Meanwhile John Hunter Nemechek, another rookie, led the series with 26 incidents.
Some of the notable drivers who had more incidents than Houff last season included: last week’s race winner Christopher Bell (20), 2003 NASCAR Cup champion Matt Kenseth (16), two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch (14), seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. (each with 13), 2012 series champion Keselowski (12), 2018 champion Joey Logano, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin (each with 11) just to name a few.
Ultimately, Houff is a humble guy, who is well spoken and seems to truly understand his position in the sport. He’s also not afraid to admit when he makes an error, which should be encouraged these days in the sport. Additionally, Houff is human just like all of the other drivers on the list above who also made human-like mistakes on the track in 2020.
Perhaps it’s time we begin to show Houff some of the same respect that we give to the other 39 drivers in the Cup Series field each and every week?