Darlington Raceway is one of the toughest tracks on the NASCAR circuit, as Quin Houff now knows. There is nothing else like it. The track, nicknamed The Track Too Tough to Tame due to its driver’s inability to master the facility, is one that many young drivers struggle on. Due to its egg-like shape and unique corners, it can take years of experience for some drivers to master. There is no place to go to get experience for Darlington. It’s not a short track; it’s a high-banked, 1.366-mile oval.
But on Sunday (May 17), something happened at Darlington that never happened before. A driver in the NASCAR Cup Series race ran a grand total of zero laps at the track before taking the green flag. He had no practice laps, nor any testing or qualifying experience at the facility. He never raced there in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, either. The first lap he ran at the track was in competition.
Houff, 22, is a name not known by many race fans. But he did well in his first Darlington start, not causing any issues until electrical problems left him 36th. Still, NASCAR took a risk to let him on the track without any laps whatsoever.
Should NASCAR have made Houff do a mandatory test before the race at Darlington?
A Test Should Have Been Allowed For Quin Houff
I remember hearing a story not too long ago about the great A.J. Foyt. The year was 1985 and Foyt was running a part-time Winston Cup schedule, as he had in years past. But that year, he wanted to run at the toughest track of them all – Darlington Raceway – for the first time in his career.
By this time, Foyt had won four Indianapolis 500s, a Daytona 500, the 24 hours of Le Mans, a 24 Hours at Daytona race and the 12 Hours at Sebring. He was arguably the greatest racecar driver in the history of auto racing. Yet NASCAR made him participate in a rookie test before approval to run at Darlington Raceway.
It’s crazy when you think about it now. Sure, NASCAR may have been too strict 35 years ago, but it’s better to be too strict than let an inexperienced driver run at a track like Darlington. They could risk causing serious injury to themselves or another competitor. It’s amazing how much the sport has changed in 35 years.
Quin Houff, a 22-year-old driver from Virginia, is a prime example of that. Houff is running his first full season in any capacity in NASCAR, driving for StarCom Racing’s No. 00 in the Cup Series. He started Sunday’s race at Darlington in 27th following a random draw to set the starting lineup. He had turned exactly zero laps at Darlington prior to the drop of the green flag.
That’s right. A driver in the Cup Series, where the horsepower on the cars far exceeds any other stock car division, never even had taken a lap around Darlington prior to the race on Sunday. It’s almost embarrassing.
Let me be clear, what happened is not Houff’s fault. With the lack of testing available nowadays and the COVID-19 pandemic eliminating all practice and qualifying sessions, it puts him and his team in an extremely tough spot. These are unprecedented times.
But NASCAR should have called for extreme measures. Just like their recent situation with Ryan Newman.
Newman returned to Darlington on Sunday after his terrifying crash in the Daytona 500. Newman missed the next three races and hadn’t competed in a racecar since that evening. Prior to Sunday’s race, Newman had to pass an on-track test to prove that he was 100% healthy before he could go racing at Darlington. Newman drove a Roush Fenway Racing car at the test and did about 30 laps before he was cleared by doctors to race.
So let me get this straight – Newman had made 657 career Cup starts prior to Sunday’s event, including 22 at Darlington. He has completed over 8,000 laps in NASCAR competition and he had to do a test, but Houff didn’t?
I understand the need for Newman’s test, especially since he is coming off an injury and you want to ensure there are no lingering effects. However, I don’t understand the fact that Houff wasn’t forced to do a test of his own. Why couldn’t they send him down there as well and perform one?
Darlington isn’t just some measly old 1.5-mile track where if you run one cookie-cutter oval, you’ve pretty much run them all. It’s one of the toughest tracks on the circuit; there is no other racetrack like it. The fact that Houff was able to race at Darlington and never complete a lap there is a major error in judgment by NASCAR. Luckily, the rookie was able to run with little incident but a risk like that is too big to take.
There’s no doubt there are some drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Thursday that will be in the same boat as Houff. But that’s what the Xfinity Series is for. It’s a development series and the horsepower in those cars is not nearly the same as it is in the Cup Series.
There’s no question, these are special times. But special circumstances should have been taken to let Houff complete a few laps at Darlington before he raced, or he shouldn’t have raced at all. NASCAR dodged a bullet. We’ve certainly come a long way since 1985 but Houff should have been in the same boat as Foyt. – Clayton Caldwell
It Was an Extraordinary Situation
Of all 2020 Cup Series rookies, Houff indeed has the least experience. But racing Darlington without running a single lap of practice was not his fault – it was an extraordinary situation.
Houff turned his first laps at Darlington during the race. However, that normally would not have been the case if the sport weren’t doing everything it could to keep competitors safe in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Since the majority of the races run over the next few weeks, including both that have already run at Darlington, don’t have practice or qualifying, it left Houff as green as they come. If the schedule was run like it normally is, Houff would have turned some laps at the track ahead of the race.
— Quin Houff (@P1_Houff) May 18, 2020
Houff’s inexperience at Darlington Raceway is not his fault. The fault lies more with the NASCAR developmental program and teams’ business plans and sponsorship commitments. Houff last competed in at least half of a season way back in 2016, running the CARS Super Late Model Tour. Since then, he has competed in five ARCA races, 10 Xfinity Series races, and 22 Cup Series starts thus far.
Why, then, did StarCom Racing choose Houff to drive the No. 00 Chevrolet this season? Because at its core, racing is a business. Either Houff brought more sponsorship money or is earning a smaller salary than last year’s driver Landon Cassill.
Houff is not the only driver who’s starting from scratch at Darlington Raceway this week. 11 of the 39 drivers entered in the Xfinity Series race also have zero experience here.
Here’s the @NASCAR_Xfinity lineup for tonight’s race. Red marks indicate the 11 drivers whose first lap of any kind @TooToughToTame will be when the green flag drops. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/zKb1iT9ujw
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) May 19, 2020
That’s nearly a third of the field! Among those 11 drivers are Joe Gibbs Racing rookies Harrison Burton and Riley Herbst. Should NASCAR make them complete a test at Darlington beforehand? No – Burton already has a win this season. As for Herbst, he drives for a powerhouse team whose drivers have superior equipment to perform well at all racetracks.
Simply put, Houff is a Cup Series rookie in an extraordinary time in history, including NASCAR. While he faced a steep learning curve at Darlington Raceway, NASCAR should not make an exception for him or any other driver who has never competed at a specific racetrack before. – Mark Kristl