The Frontstretch: NASCAR Underdog Rebuilding Life - And Career - In Face Of Adversity by Bryan Davis Keith -- Wednesday September 28, 2011

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NASCAR Underdog Rebuilding Life - And Career - In Face Of Adversity

Bryan Davis Keith · Wednesday September 28, 2011

 

Rewind back to the spring, when the Nationwide Series first visited Richmond International Raceway. That weekend was one that saw Eric McClure have about as sour a visit to RIR as any Virginia native could have. Coming off a week that saw both driver and family narrowly avert death after enduring a direct hit from a tornado returning home from a church service, McClure arrived at Richmond tired and overwhelmed. Coupled with a race team in the No. 14 that was struggling on-track and on the cusp of falling from the top 30 in owner points, it seemed that not even a move to TriStar Motorsports, one that had the Nationwide veteran bubbling with excitement at Homestead six months prior could turn around his fortunes.

McClure was privately rumbling that retirement wasn’t out of the question even before the rough start to 2011 came to fruition. And after enduring the type of season he had leading up to Richmond, and the helter skelter week that led up to that race, it would have been hard to blame him if he quit.

- – - –

Four months later, the Nationwide Series returned to Richmond, and suddenly those days seemed in the distant past, as things had returned to normal for McClure and the No. 14 team. ESPN was nowhere to be found; instead, McClure’s pastor was the headline visitor as I met him at his hauler. Gone was the taxed, concerned father and racer that was there more in body than in mind back in the spring, and back was the self-deprecating sense of humor and sports fanhood that has generated him a small but loyal following.

Eric McClure has quietly righted the ship the past few months at TriStar; he’s 20th in the season standings and has earned a “locked in” spot on the Nationwide Series grid each week.

“I notice you had me listed as the ugly,” McClure quipped as I shook his hand entering the hauler, referring to a passage I had written in the Nationwide Series Breakdown column a week prior (McClure hit the wall twice at Atlanta in that event, eventually having to get out of the car due to carbon monoxide fumes entering his cockpit). Defending my writing based on the fact that, tire failures or not, McClure had endured a rough evening hitting the fence multiple times, the driver kept on ragging.

“Come on, man,” he ribbed. “I was sick behind the wheel!”

All joking aside, the tire failures that plagued the No. 14 team at Atlanta have been just one of a number of mechanical issues that’s hung over them like a cloud in 2011. For any new driver and team, bad luck and parts breaking can keep you from gelling as quickly – one of the main problems facing this pairing all year.

“Anything that seems to go wrong for this team happens to the No. 14 car,” said McClure of the team’s myriad of obstacles in 2011. “[Last year], I’d have said I’d rather run faster and find trouble than run like we did last year. Guess I got what I asked for.”

Those DNFs, five to be exact have put a damper on a year where the driver hoped the TriStar switch would lead to better results. But, if there’s any consolation simply knowing the right combination of speed and handling can be there, under the right circumstances can be comforting for a veteran that’s struggled at times with equipment throughout his career.

“From the outside looking in, 2011 has been disappointing,” he continued. “Inside, I know we’re faster. We should have double digit top 20s. [But] I’m just glad to be 20th-ish at some races. Five races this season, we’ve been better than 15th, legitimately. Darlington, we had a real shot at a top 10… and we blew up on lap 10.”

For all the trouble, though, McClure’s move to TriStar after two years in the Rensi camp has proven to be just the shot in the arm the driver hoped it would be. Concerns over the top 30 in owner points have been assuaged, both on the strength of better runs for the No. 14 team and attrition across the Nationwide field. The team, during the summer months has made progress on developing its fleet of COT cars. And the veteran presence inside the stable, with former champions Mike Bliss and Jeff Green driving for the same team has proven invaluable.

“I’ve leaned on the guys [Bliss and Green] a lot,” McClure explained. “Let them drive the cars during practice. At this point, we’re saying the same things and running the same speed. That’s a real confidence builder.”

Of course, when any driver is running 20th there’s still plenty of work they feel should be done. “We don’t really work well with the No. 19 teamwise,” he admitted. “We get along, but they’re a bit better than we are. What’s most disappointing is the race tracks later this season I’m not great at. Our biggest weakness is adjustments. We can’t get better through practice.”

What the team has managed to do is make the COT drivable, even if it is, as the driver smirked “an evil car.” And, perhaps more importantly, TriStar has managed to utilize the limited scope of McClure’s Hefty sponsorship to the point of surviving in the harsh climate of today’s Nationwide Series. The significance of that was not lost on both driver and sponsor rep on this Richmond weekend, where the demise of Kevin Harvick, Incorporated had been announced only hours earlier.

“You try to do what the big guys do, you don’t survive in this garage,” the driver remarked. “People assume if there’s logos on the cars, they’re getting a fortune. They’re not… people here do what they have to to get deals.”

“It’s sad. Not just anyone can do this anymore.”

Considering McClure’s relationship with this sport and this business (he’s related to the former owners of Morgan-McClure Motorsports), those ultimate comments regarding his first season with TriStar strike even harder. In a time where many that have long called the Nationwide Series home are being forced to bow out, the most unlikely of drivers is making progress, even if that career is measured not in trophies, but top-20s.

“I feel like I belong here,” McClure asserts of his place with the team. “These guys knew coming in that I haven’t had the best career, yet they’ve still gotten behind me.”

- – - –

McClure, who once considered retiring earlier this season now has his eyes on 2012, expecting to return after settling in with TriStar during the summer months.

But just as McClure and those following his career realize that its true tale will never be told on the stats sheet, the story of his 2011 season will also not be told in results or numbers. Because for the progress he’s made, moving on with his new team and career on the track, it’s the maturity away from it that McClure chose to speak of at Richmond.

“Off the track, I’ve grown a lot as a person,” said McClure, reflecting on the past few months. “[I was worried about] the top 30 battle, and then the tornado…it certainly put things into perspective.”

Real-life adjustments have certainly been rampant for McClure since that incident. Though the family home has been repaired from the weather damage, the McClures are now relocating to a farm. It’s a move that’s generating some uncertainty in the driver’s mind – “I don’t do the whole animals thing, except for dogs,” he explained – but a group decision that’s been made nonetheless. And on this afternoon, with practice out of the way and the Nationwide race on Friday night mere hours away, that impending move is putting a different type of quandary on the driver’s mind.

“We’re talking about getting a cow,” says McClure of his move to the farm. “And a pony. They [wife and kids] are taking about feeding the animals. [Meanwhile], I’m thinking I’ve got to feed the kids!”

Still, Eric’s got a smile on his face. “If we’re getting a cow, we’re getting a go-kart track,” he chuckled. And from there, the racing side came out. McClure started talking about his car, his take on 2011 Nationwide Series, and what could be expected under the lights that Friday night. Suddenly, the guy who just a year ago was talking of hanging up the helmet sounds like he did back when I first met him in 2009, the best season of his career to date.

“We’ll be back in the Nationwide Series next year,” says McClure of himself and his Hefty sponsorship. “That’s a big deal. Last year, I wanted to retire.”

“Now, I want to come back.”

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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