By Dustin Albino
Seven-hundredths of a second. That’s how close Cory Roper came from failing to qualify for the season opening Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona International Speedway.
Instead of having to load up the hauler and return to the team’s shop in Texas, Roper took the green flag for the NextEra Energy 250 in 31st position, the final driver making the field based on speed. Meanwhile, the likes of Parker Kligerman and Joe Nemechek missed the show — in Nemechek’s case for the second consecutive season.
Throughout the duration of the race, Roper played it safe, staying well behind the lead draft. Following the conclusion of the opening stage, the No. 04 Ford found itself in 24th. In the second stage, though, Roper mixed it up a bit, racing up to 13th.
But in a caution-filled final stage, Roper came to play. He stayed away from the carnage and put the No. 04 truck in a position at the end. In fact, he was one of just six trucks to not receive any cosmetic damage from incident all evening.
Keeping his nose clean, Roper lined up inside the top 10 on a green-white-checkered finish. When the field took the white flag, it was the No. 04 shoving defending Truck champion Sheldon Creed to the lead, only to make a power move into Turn 1.
Clearing the field, Roper began to pull away. But that’s not a good thing on a superspeedway, as the pack puckered up down the backstretch, closing in on the No. 04.
“I knew I was a sitting duck whenever I didn’t feel the push, it just pulls the motor back,” Roper said post race. “[Ben Rhodes] sucked me back when he got to the spoiler. You hear all of that in the truck and you know.”
Even exiting Turn 4 of the final lap, Roper had the lead. But Rhodes was getting a push from ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger, allowing the No. 99 to get to the right rear of the No. 04, pulling his Chevrolet back. Rhodes took the checkered flag as the winner, and Roper dropped to third, behind Jordan Anderson, who drove from 11th to second on the final lap.
“It’s bittersweet,” Roper said of the finish. “You can’t be upset with a third in this series; this is probably the most competitive series in the circuit, I believe. Just to make this race, we were this close to not making it. But to get a good finish like that, you’ve got to be happy for your guys that work on this so hard and happy for the team.”
Roper Racing is a small family-run operation, made up of people Roper says he loves. There’s his crew chief Shane Whitbeck, and many family members, including his brother and brother-in-law that help prepared his ride.
The exhilaration of placing third — at Daytona nonetheless — was special for a driver that’s fought and clawed with the family team to make it in the Truck Series.
But from a financial standpoint, it was a big pay day. And with the team announcing in late January that it would run the full 2021 schedule, this third-place finish will go a long way.
“We’ve got some work to do to be able to run like we want to run,” Roper said of the finances. “So any time you can finish well and get a great finish like this and bring funds back to better your equipment, it’s huge in racing like this.
“The financial side of it is huge to be able to help us get two or three more races to the schedule without any issue.”
After watching the video, Roper wasn’t certain there was anything he could have done differently to wind up in victory lane. Coming to the white flag he brushed the wall, making his truck tight.
All he could do was hope the No. 04 truck beat the field back.
“I had the wheel turned further than I should have left off of [Turn] 4,” he said. “I wish I had known [Anderson] was coming and I probably would have thrown a little more block on him, but didn’t know he was there until it was too late and there wasn’t any sense in taking him out because I was too late to throw it anyway.
“All I could do was hold her to the mat and see what happened.”
Despite coming up short, Roper earned his best career finish, bettering his ninth-place effort from Texas Motor Speedway in 2019.