By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
There are six drivers competing in this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Cup Series. To nobody’s surprise, the discussion of who’ll win the award at season’s end have narrowed down to four.
Those four are Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, John Hunter Nemechek and Tyler Reddick. All due to the fact of having massive success in the lower series that got them to the big dance.
This leaves two drivers who are considered nothing but long shots of winning which are Quin Houff and Brennan Poole.
A lot of the big outlets didn’t focus on the other two rookies due to the fact they’re not in equipment that’s deemed promising (Bell’s Leavine Family Racing and Nemechek’s Front Row Motorsports) or have tremendous prestige (Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing and Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing).
Instead, Houff is driving for StarCom Racing, who are competing in just their third season and have yet to even score a Cup top-10 finish. Poole on the other hand, is driving for Premium Motorsports, a team that has only two top-10s with both taking place in the Daytona 500.
Already, the odds are stacked against them but their mindsets are as crucial because they’re looking to build respect in the Cup garage.
Houff replaced Landon Cassill in the No. 00 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE during the off-season which was mixed received by fans. Before making the jump to Cup full-time, he drove 17 races for Spire Motorsports with only two top-30 finishes to his name.
Fans further scratched their heads as to why a driver that nearly drove half a Cup season a year ago would even be eligible for ROTY honors. Despite this, Houff got approved to be a part of the six-driver class.
Houff said during Daytona 500 Media Day February 12 that this season marked the first time he’s competed full-time in any form of racing since his super late model days. Therefore, he won’t have to depend on a side job to keep him busy and certainly embraced being glossed over in this rookie battle.
“I kind of love the fact that nobody expects us to be a threat and kind of love the fact that nobody knows how to say my name,” Houff said. “That expectation is very low, and I look forward exceeding with a newer team. I’m a newer driver and they believe in me. We got 38 weeks to try to build that reputation and show that we are a team that belongs in the Cup garage.”
The 22-year-old Virginian commented his biggest goal is help grow StarCom where it can be a team that could impress on a weekly basis, and be up there with SHR and RCR someday.
That being said, Houff understands that it’s a 10-month odyssey where a lot of twists and turns are bound to happen, but if his short tenure in NASCAR have proven anything, people should expect to bring the car home in peace.
“Those are the closest guys that are kind of my age and I was already up here last year and have some Cup experience,” Houff said. “Obviously, they got some bigger programs but I’m glad to be with StarCom Racing and glad to have a program behind me that’s willing to build around me and it’s going to be exciting.
“You take it one a week at a time. If you put them all together at the end and have a good result. It’s neat to be able to say that I’m doing this for a living now. This was the ultimate dream and we’re here. Now it’s time to perfect it lap-by-lap.”
Poole’s road to the Cup Series was a roller coaster ride. What looked promising a few years ago was almost for not as there might’ve not been a shot in the sport’s highest level due to unfortunate circumstances.
Beforehand, Poole competed in the Xfinity Series with both HScott Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing from 2015-17. In that span, he was sponsored by DC Solar and scored eighth top-fives and 36 top-10 finishes in 83 starts with a sixth-place points finish in 2017 being the peak of his career.
Poole came close of winning Talladega in 2016 due to the fact he narrowly beat Elliott Sadler at the line. However, the caution had come out as the battle happened due to a massive multi-car crash at the tri-oval. He was credited with an agonizing third-place finish which was also his first top-five.
Poole would score another third at Road America that year before finishing a career-high second to Reddick at Kentucky in 2017.
Suddenly, the 28-year-old Texan faced a massive road block as he was no longer a part of Ganassi’s team in 2018. A lawsuit between Poole and his sponsor followed suit and for quite some time, his chance of racing in NASCAR was severely reduced.
Prior of being a Cup rookie, Poole have since made 15 starts with all of them being in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series since the 2017 campaign.
When the going was tough, Poole never gave up whatsoever and made the absolute most of racing for the Steven Lane owned team, finishing second to Kyle Busch at Charlotte last May. While it was his only top-five finish, Poole did score another three top-10s.
It proved to be beneficial as Poole got the nod to run full-time for Jay Robinson’s team. Being in Cup and competing in “The Great American Race” for the first time meant that part of his dream have come into fruition.
“Over the past couple of years has certainly been tough and it’s been a challenge. I’ve never lost faith and just kept working hard,” Poole said during Media Day. “Fortunately, I’ve had some good opportunities last year to race as much as a I did, and it opened some doors to be here. Certainly, grateful for the opportunity and it’s kind of a small part of my dream coming true to be able to race in the 500 and I’m just soaking it all up.”
Like Houff, Poole understands the enormous challenge lying ahead but his thinking process were different. While Houff’s mindset is on taking it a race at a time, Poole is more focused on not making mistakes and get the best finish possible.
“We just look at it as just not making any mistakes on any given weekend. Some weekends are going to be good for weeks, and some weekends we’re going to struggle,” Poole said. “For the most part, if we just limit all the mistakes and get the possible finish we can each week – then that’s a win for us. I think the rookie points will just wind up how they’re going to wind up. I know at the end of the day as long as I did my job, I’ll be pleased with that.”
Poole is currently 25th in points, thanks to a solid Cup debut result of 16th in the Daytona 500. Houff on the other hand is 10 spots behind Poole with a 32nd at Las Vegas being the positive thus far.
The season is still very young and a lot can change. Their next journey will be Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California for the running of the Auto Club 400. It’ll be Houff’s first trip at the two-mile circuit while Poole made two Xfinity starts with an eighth in 2017 being his best.