DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There are few drivers in the Nationwide Series garage that can stake more claim to the title “hard-luck driver” than Jeremy Clements. The driver who for a brief moment in time was a Joe Gibbs Racing driver to support Kyle Busch was one of many development drivers whose big ride never came. Instead, Clements has spent the last few seasons behind the wheel of the family ride, living the life of a NASCAR underdog.
The hard luck continued into Daytona. Clements started off strong in the 300-mile season opener, hooking up with Josh Wise in what proved to be a successful tandem, as the two managed to crack the top 10 under green and ran inside the top 20 for much of the afternoon.
But by race’s end, the No. 51 was multiple laps down, forced to pit under green for overheating issues, then losing the clutch later in the event. Still, the afternoon could have been much worse; Clements was sent spinning in the big one on lap 103, but managed to avoid any major damage to his car. After all, such cars are scarce.
“We have five cars now, but we can’t afford to just go out there and wreck them” said Clements, for whom a five-car fleet is an improvement; the No. 51 team contested the entire 2011 Nationwide schedule with only three machines. “It costs a lot of money to get them repaired. “[But] if we don’t wreck, we can build up our notes, understand our cars better [and] we don’t spend as much money.”
If it sounds familiar, it’s because 2012 is looking very much like 2011 for Jeremy Clements Racing. The team entered the season with only a patch-quilt of sponsorship on the books for the season; as of Wednesday (Feb. 29), the team did not have backing for the upcoming event at Phoenix tomorrow.
“At Phoenix we’ll run scuffs in the race, I know we will” Clements remarked at Daytona. “Unless of course we find a major sponsor, which is like trying to find a four-leaf clover. We’re in the same boat, running the same engines.”
Part of being in the same boat as 2011 is the ultimately challenging existence that Clements and team are keeping up in NASCAR’s AAA. Take, for example the westward swing of the touring schedule.
“There’s one guy at the shop preparing the car for Phoenix and Vegas” Clements answered when I asked if he was ready to head west (almost the entire team was in Daytona for race weekend). “The backup is on the trailer right now. [After Saturday] we haul ass back to Spartanburg, unload. [We try to] get the other car prepared as best we can without cutting corners, then we head out west.
“We have to leave by Tuesday morning. One guy back at the shop, everyone else is here at the track. I’m not complaining, [but] that’s just how it is” said Clements.
That team? It totals seven guys, including the driver and his dad.
But the larger challenge looms for a driver and a crew that have all but tapped what they can do with the resources at their disposal. Running a full 34-race schedule with race-to-race sponsorship … and not a single start-and-park effort in the bunch … is a taxing endeavor.
It’s even more so for a competitive outfit when a 14th-place showing is the best they can realistically hope to race for. That’s what happens when the same car gets run a dozen times a year, when the tire budget can only afford to pay for used product.
And for the driver, it’s especially burdensome from a psychological standpoint. Racing week after week to finish, not to win, takes a toll on any competitor. So does the reality of today’s NASCAR.
“There is no driver development” Clements quipped when asked about his place on stock car racing’s ladder. “All it is is who brings what money to what team. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it is. That’s what NASCAR has evolved into and it’s a shame.”
As much of a downer as such an outlook may seem, the fire is still very much alive in the South Carolina-native … and it didn’t take much in the form of interview skills to figure that out. Talking shop, talking racing, Clements was every bit the straight shooter he’s always been.
Ask him about his offseason, it was hard to get more than a couple sentences. Jeremy’s winter was spent counting down the days until it was time to go racing again, challenges aside.
All that time thinking about racing did give the Clements Racing team some unique ideas though. Talking spoiler packages, I asked the driver the quintessential “if you were king of NASCAR for a day, what would you do?” question. Unable to answer off the top of his head, Clements turned to one of his crewmen and posed the same query. It didn’t take long to get a reply.
“I’d make all the Cup guys put another 100 pounds or so in their car” he said. “It’s not much, but it’d be a little something. [Maybe] instead of lapping us every 40 laps, they’d be lapping us every 70 laps.”
More of the same in 2012. More straight talk from one of the Nationwide Series’ true stalwart regulars.
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