DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Cory Roper nearly missed the field for Friday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season opener at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
He ended the night in much finer fashion, however, leading the NextEra Energy Resources 250 coming off the final corner and ending up with a third-place finish after being passed by eventual winner Ben Rhodes coming to the checkered flag on the 2.5-mile track.
Roper, who snuck into the field as the final driver to lock in on qualifying speed, started 31st Friday night and stayed back in the pack — out of trouble — for the majority of the 250-mile distance.
However, he came to life during the final stage, picking his way through several late-race accidents to have a shot during the final restart, where he restarted inside the top 10 and rocketed to the front.
Roper took the green flag, found defending series champion Sheldon Creed in the draft, and the pair hooked up. Roper shoved Creed all the way to the lead at the white flag, but when Creed slapped the outside wall approaching turn one, the Texan had to take evasive action to keep his hopes alive.
He ducked to the inside in front of Rhodes and, suddenly, found himself leading exiting turn two.
Roper’s only problem? The push Rhodes gave him was strong enough, it got him too far out front.
“I knew I was a sitting duck whenever I didn’t feel the push, it just pulls the motor back,” Roper said after the race. “[Ben Rhodes] sucked me back when he got to the spoiler. You hear all of that in the truck and you just know (what’s coming).”
As the field exited turn four and roared toward the checkered flag, Rhodes moved to the outside lane with help from his ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger and powered past Roper.
At that point, the die was cast. Roper ended up third after Jordan Anderson charged from 11th to second and nearly snookered both Roper and Rhodes in the final few feet.
Though he could see a potential win at Daytona out his windshield, Roper also couldn’t discount the significance of a podium result to his single-truck, family-owned race team.
“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 thing so hard … and I’m happy for the team.”
Though Friday night’s result was big in terms of Roper’s confidence as a driver, it also meant a lot financially, considering his operation is less well-funded than some of the bigger teams in the series.
“We’ve got some work to do to be able to run like we want to run,” Roper said. “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.”
Could he have done anything differently to hold the lead in the final run to the checkered flag?
“I had the wheel turned further than I should have left off of [turn] four,” Roper said. “I wish I had known [Anderson] was coming and I probably would have thrown a little more block on him, but I 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.”
Roper’s season will continue Feb. 19 with the BrakeBest Select 159 from the Daytona Int’l Speedway road course, the famed facility’s 3.61-mile, 14-turn layout that integrates parts of the superspeedway with the infield road course used for the Rolex 24 endurance race.