Race Weekend Central

The Struggles of a NASCAR Underdog – How Jeremy Clements Perseveres

CONCORD, N.C. – Charlotte Motor Speedway, Oct. 2009. I’m in a small but comfortable hauler in the Nationwide Series garage, chatting it up with an owner that’s happy to call it a second home. It doesn’t take long for two racing men to start swapping stories, and I talk about a close call I’d had just two weeks earlier at Dover – my first near-death experience with a 3,400-pound start-and-park car that didn’t see me coming and nearly clipped me in their race to obscurity inside the back of their haulers.

I didn’t find it the least bit funny. Jeremy Clements did.

“It was a race back to the garage, huh?” he quipped. “Looks like you’re the one that got beat.”

It was easily the most laid back conversation I’d had with any driver in some time, and for good reason – Clements was on cloud nine. Just one week earlier, he scored a 12th-place finish at Fontana, the best of his Nationwide Series career, in a race that his team had never even planned to make the trek out west for.

What’s more, even after deciding to make the 3,000-mile trip, that top 15 was never supposed to happen – with Clements planning to be part of that “race to the garage” himself.

“It’s funny,” he said to me then. “Last week we were talking about start-and-parking California, just to get the money for this race so we could buy six sets of tires.”

Instead, the racer in the team got the best of them. They found a way to stretch their dollars and turned in one of the best underdog performances of the 2009 Nationwide Series season for their effort. Suddenly, people were taking notice of a name they hadn’t heard much about.

Clements’ newfound confidence carried over in a big way later that afternoon in North Carolina. Driving what was then the team’s only racecar, he took a machine that was near the bottom of the practice charts and turned in a top-20 qualifying run that left most within the garage simply stunned. It was only the team themselves that didn’t flinch – because just like their driver, they believed in their ability to succeed in the face of adversity. Against teams and drivers with 10 times the resources, they had every intention of coming to this track to race against them.

That Friday, race against them they did.

Daytona International Speedway, February 2010

It’s a rainy Friday and I’m sprinting through the Nationwide Series garage, jumping inside the same Clements hauler that I had been standing in five months before. Five minutes earlier, I had learned that the No. 0 team, despite being in the top 43 in owner points for 2009, was going to be sent home from the biggest race of the Nationwide Series season. Why?

The answer is simple enough: NASCAR’s rulebook bases setting the last few spots in the field on “current calendar year owner points.” But since no team had any points for 2010, NASCAR followed their procedures and decided to set the rest of the field based on qualifying draw instead. It’s a rainout rule designed in the guise of fairness but inevitably rewarding the rich; while the top-30 teams were set in stone, 31st in last year’s owner points could wind up loading their car and heading home.

See also
Owner Points Systems Convoluting, Confounding Speedweeks

For many people, that’s exactly what happened, while a number of teams that had made no attempts prior to 2010 were welcomed into the show – including the No. 97 start-and-park car that Jeff Fuller and NEMCO Motorsports later that day made a killing off of, selling their spot in the field to Paul Menard and the Roush Fenway organization for nearly $50,000.

On the other side of it all was the Clements crew, who was left kind of dumbfounded – as I was. Sure, the rulebook laid it out in black and white that qualifying draw was the procedure to be used in that situation, but how did it make sense that the top 30 teams got in because of their 2009 points and not positions 31-43?

The ruling came with disastrous consequences for them; now, a team that came to Daytona with a sponsor, a borrowed car and hopes of using the big purse to allow them to contest the first five races of 2010 in a bid for one of those Top-30 slots was sent home not because they weren’t fast on the track, but because some NASCAR official picked a pill near the bottom of the qualifying order for them before they ever came to Daytona.

It was a devastating blow. As Clements told the Spartanburg Herald Journal, “We were planning to go to California and (Las) Vegas, but now we’re going to look into that.”

“We spent big money to get down here and not even get to try. It cost us a big payday and it’s really just not fair.”

The team made the decision to try and run Fontana nonetheless, and things were looking up at the same track where Clements scored his career-best finish. In practice, the team was 20th-fastest of the 49 cars that showed up out west, leading to some cautious optimism another solid weekend was in the works. But disaster struck during his qualifying lap; tire smoke was visibly evident as his No. 04 car came down the frontstretch, and be it because of a soft tire or the distraction of a smoky fender, Clements spun on the exit of turn 2.

Dating back to Homestead in Nov. 2009, it was his third DNQ in a row.

The team still believed in him. But belief only gets you so far.

Be it money, equipment or a sheer lack of rides, there are a considerable number of glass ceilings keeping development drivers today from going, well, anywhere. Two of the last four Rookies of the Year in the Nationwide Series are still shopping for a permanent home… and both of those drivers came from powerhouse organizations at Roush and Hendrick.

A lack of sponsor dollars have kept former Roush development driver Erik Darnell, former Gibbs development driver Marc Davis, former Childress development driver Stephen Leicht and many more off the track, on the outside looking in at the marquee teams they once were a part of. The list goes on and on.

Jeremy Clements knows of this harsh reality all too well. He’s hit just about every obstacle out there, trying to make his way from the ARCA ranks to NASCAR’s big time.

And he’s come close on more than one occasion. Late in 2007, Clements was put behind the wheel of the No. 36 car for the now-defunct McGill Motorsports operation, running the final five races of that season. Though the team was adamant that they wanted to continue racing with Jeremy, even in a limited capacity, the sponsor dollars never materialized despite a best finish of 23rd. With no money and no prospects, the team shut down and equipment was sold, eventually giving Clements one of its racecars for his efforts behind the wheel.

Back then, it was a start, and the up-and-coming driver was willing to take whatever he could get. And despite financial resources limiting him to only four Nationwide Series race attempts in 2008, the driver still landed a huge break in the form of a foot in the door with one of NASCAR’s best. With Kyle Busch pulling double duty between the Nationwide and Cup series, it was Clements who was tabbed to practice and qualify Busch’s vaunted No. 18 Toyota.

He measured up in a big way at Kentucky; tasked with racing the No. 18 car into the field on time, he not only locked Busch into the show, but delivered a top-10 starting position doing it. The car proved so stout, Busch took the lead after starting 43rd in less than 40 laps.

Clements also practiced the No. 18 at a number of standalone Nationwide Series races in 2008, with quite the carrot dangling in front of him… a chance to actually race one of the two finest cars in the field.

But that chance never came. The team only had one car open for one race (Memphis) and that went to Davis. Right around that time, word also came out that Busch was going to attempt a full Nationwide Series schedule, leaving him with no choice but to volunteer his services to practice and qualify Kyle’s cars again in 2009.

Those services were never called upon. Busch arrived early at both Nashville and Kentucky, in time to practice and qualify his own cars. As for Milwaukee, JGR instead chose to enlist Johnny Sauter, who had more starts and experience at the Mile.

Clements has heard very little from JGR since.

“They haven’t talked to me, so I’m sure I’m not [in the running for a ride],” Clements said the week prior to Daytona. “I haven’t heard anything.”

So the driver was left to his own devices, which in his team’s case was their only Nationwide Series racecar – the gift from McGill.

And the team did what they could on their budget, qualifying for all six races they attempted, including a top-20 finish at Gateway in July. Looking to start more races, the team then struck a deal with JD Motorsports, running their own car as Johnny Davis’s No. 0. The arrangement was fruitful; Clements qualified for six of the season’s final seven races and ran the distance for what had been a start-and-park number the entire season.

Despite missing the year-end finale at Homestead, the Clements Racing bunch was on a roll. Making a full-time run at 2010 was on the agenda, and fortunately, a longtime racing sponsor came calling with some help.

“Boudreaux’s Butt Paste gave us enough money to put their name on the car,” said Clements the week of the deal, citing Days of Thunder while clearly excited about the prospect of being at Daytona for the season opener. “It’s not millions, but we’re planning to go to the first three races to see how it goes.”

“We’d love to try and go to these first five and somehow get locked into the top 30. And I think we could. Last year, we were a 20th-25th place car when we didn’t mess it up.”

The team and driver may not have messed it up, but the first two weeks of 2010 have been disastrous for them nonetheless. Despite making all the right moves – aligning with a team in the top 43 in owner points to deal with rainouts, signing a sponsor and working out an arrangement with JDM to borrow a plate car for Daytona – Clements and his race team are nowhere near locking into the Top 30. They haven’t even made a race since last November at Phoenix.

Any observer out there, be it a casual fan or an informed observer that just doesn’t know much about this racer and the team around him, may well think that being 0 for 2 on the season, with sponsorship money running out, may force the group to go back to start-and-parking – and ultimately, that Clements may join the ranks of so many development prospects before him.

Well, those fans don’t know Jeremy Clements. Because hidden in his past is a story that says one thing very clearly: This driver’s going to make it.

311 Speedway, 2004

Racing on a legendary track known to some as the “Daytona of dirt,” a late model race turned disastrous for Clements. “The driveshaft broke, came clear through the car,” he recalls, a common occurrence during wrecks with those vehicles but one that comes with disastrous consequences. Unable to react in time, the driveshaft went straight into his right hand, causing massive injury.

“It was a 30-minute ride to the hospital and I remember every bit of it. It was terrible.”

“At the hospital, they were going to cut it off, they were like ‘we’re not saving this’” Clements says of his hand. “And my dad said ‘[then] this isn’t the place for us.'”

“They took tendons from my right foot, bone from my hip, it’s amazing,” he told me when speaking of his hand at Charlotte last fall. “I can’t get in a fight with it, but I can drive and shift no problem. I can shake your hand.”

After shaking it, all I could tell him was I’d have never known he got hurt.

Despite having such a compelling story, one that goes a long way towards demonstrating the bond between Clements, his dad, and racing, Clements more often than not wears long sleeves, hiding the scars that the sport he loves has given him. And those scars show in far more than just a physical means – missing the first two races of 2010 has obviously taken a mental toll on him. It’s not hard to understand why, as even at the point of his greatest success in the sport, at Fontana last October, his team still faced the cold truths of racing at this level as an independent on a small dollar.

Johnny Chapman start-and-parked out there, got $21,000 for doing that,” recounts the driver. “We got $25,000 for finishing 12th. And the money we spent extra – tires to run the rest of the race – cost more than $4,000, or all of the difference between what he made and what we made.”

What’s more, his gutsy performance went unnoticed on the TV broadcast that Saturday. Having been in the camp of the best of the best, even if just to practice, Jeremy has a keen sense of the reality of getting exposure in today’s NASCAR.

“The only way to get recognition is to run in the top five, if you’re affiliated with a Cup team or if you wreck,” he explained. “They’ll talk about that.”

“It sucks, because what are you supposed to do? We can’t run in the top five on a shoestring budget, we can’t compete with Joe Gibbs and all them. I’ve driven those cars, I know what they drive like and I know what we have. We just can’t.”

“And how else can you get recognition? That was our best, I doubt we can top that 12th. I mean, we didn’t even have a pit crew. I don’t know what you’ve got to do anymore.”

Fortunately, just as he can’t hide his frustration, he can’t hide the real reason he’s going to make it in this sport: Jeremy Clements has already made a career out of doing things that he shouldn’t be able to do.

The doctors told him he’d never race again after his horrific wreck at 311 Speedway. He’s run at least 50 races between the ARCA and Nationwide Series since.

He came within a hundred yards of scoring his first ARCA win at Pocono in 2007, only to run out of gas with the flagman waving the checkered flag, losing the race at the line. The very next race, he led the most laps and won at Nashville.

In Charlotte this past October, Clements was 47th on the practice charts heading into qualifying. He qualified 20th, picking up over four mph, the biggest jump of anyone in the 50-plus car field.

There aren’t many drivers out there that make a habit of doing things like that at the track. At least not many that aren’t driving for a living.

As fellow Frontstretch writer Tom Bowles and I walked up to the Clements Racing hauler in October to meet Jeremy for the first time, we found him cleaning out the back of his hauler. I told him how I’d had a similar experience with Peyton Sellers earlier that day (having never seen Sellers, I’d actually walked past him because he was busy cleaning his own trailer).

“I’m always cleaning stuff up,” Clements said. “This isn’t a glamorous life.”

“It’s certainly not life on the other side of the garage,” I acknowledged.

“But why are we all here?” asked Tom, engines blaring in the background. “We love it.”

“That’s right,” said Jeremy as he shook our hands for the first time. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”

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