”Look, I’m ready to go. Put me in a car and I can go up front, no doubt. I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, I’m ready.” – Jeremy Clements
Rewind back to last season’s Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway. Much like last year, Kyle Busch was the talk of the circuit… would he or would he not declare his intent to run for a Nationwide title?
However, on this Saturday one year ago, much like this past Saturday, Busch was absent at Kentucky Speedway only hours before the green, for he was racing a Truck race in Michigan. And with Kentucky qualifying being broadcast and no Kyle Busch to talk about, all the hype centered around Busch’s No. 18 Toyota instead. Who was behind the wheel with Rowdy gone? And would this guy get the No. 18 Toyota into the field?
That guy was Jeremy Clements, and he lived up to the hype. After playing it safe on the first lap, Clements posted the seventh-quickest time on the second lap, wowing the broadcast crew and securing a solid pit selection for the No. 18 team.
“Last year when I did it [drove the No. 18], they were really worried after what happened with Denny at Darlington.” (Denny Hamlin failed to qualify.)
“That car had the pole in it, if I had run it 100%. I probably only ran it 75%. Had to get in, that’s all that mattered.”
Clements’s talent shone on more than the speed charts that night. Once Busch got behind the No. 18 Toyota that Clements set up, he made his way from the rear of the field to the lead in less than a quarter the race distance, leading 85 laps before wrecking himself.
With those kind of results, it’s not surprising that Joe Gibbs Racing called upon Clements again for his services as a substitute driver. Unfortunately for Clements, however, 2009 has not made the opportunity to return as JGR’s practice driver a fruitful one.
Thanks to adverse weather in Pocono and Cup qualifying being rained out, Busch was able to return to Nashville for Nationwide practice, meaning Clements didn’t get to drive the No. 18 even for a few laps. Then, at Kentucky, Clements was scheduled to practice Joey Logano’s No. 20 car, but 24 hours before practice was to commence, the last minute decision was made for Logano not only to fly back from Michigan to qualify the Nationwide car… but to practice it, too.
Two race weekends… zero seat time. What’s more, even though the Nationwide Series is hosting another standalone event at Milwaukee this weekend (meaning Kyle Busch will be unable to qualify and practice his No. 18), Clements will not be the relief driver.
“[Jason] Ratcliffe wants a driver that’s been to Milwaukee before, has experience there. They’re getting Johnny Sauter. Which sucks, it’s not my fault I haven’t been there.”
“I told them I felt fine going there. But I can’t override his [Ratcliffe’s] decision. I’d never been to ORP last year and I practiced Kyle’s car there last year on his old tires… and he dominated that race.”
“But they’ve got to do what’s best for him [Kyle].”
In speaking to Clements, there’s no question he understands the value of the experience that Sauter will bring to the No. 18 team this weekend. But there’s no question as well that he’s frustrated; frustrated not just because of his lack of a ride this weekend, but of how his career is idling, thanks to the state of both the economy and NASCAR today.
For the truth is, Clements’s performance in the No. 18 last season did turn eyes, not just in the broadcast booth in Kentucky, but among the big names at JGR as well.
“Last year, they did [talk to me about development stuff]. They were telling me I could have a chance of being the test driver Joey was last year, where he was doing all the CoT testing. Well, then NASCAR made the no testing rule, and that pretty much got canned.”
Don’t look for Clements to end up behind the wheel of a JGR Toyota in a points race this year either. Between the heavy schedules of Cup regulars Kyle Busch and Logano, as well as Brad Coleman’s newfound sponsorship, the team’s Nationwide stable is well spoken for.
“Kyle is a racer just like myself, and he wants to race every day, as much as possible,” says Clements of his fellow driver. “I don’t blame him for doing it (running a full Nationwide schedule.)”
“But I think it comes to a point where where you’re taking away opportunities from people like myself, because he’s hogging everything.”
“It sucks. To be honest about it, it just sucks.”
With no openings at JGR and the testing ban keeping a plethora of young drivers like Clements and fellow young guns such as Kevin Hamlin, Peyton Sellers and others on the outside looking in at development contracts and funded rides with NASCAR’s elite, the cold hard truth in Nationwide Series racing today is simple: cold hard cash.
“All it is right now is money,” says the Spartansburg, S.C. driver. “If you can bring money to a team, you can drive anything you want. And that’s really disheartening, because I don’t have a big check I can bring.”
“It doesn’t even matter if you can drive anymore.”
Clements is blunt in speaking about how the all mighty dollar has trumped even talent in big-time stock car racing, and there’s no reason for him not to be… because he’s proven all too well that he can drive.
Driving the No. 3 in the ARCA Re/Max Series since 2002, Clements has attempted partial schedules for each of the last seven seasons, driving in family-owned cars, with a “thrown-together” pit crew and even engines built by his father. And the results have been head-turning. Focusing on the longer circuits – even in the ARCA ranks they have been largely saturated by super-team farm squads and teams with far larger budgets – Clements proved to be a threat for top-10 finishes every time he took to the track.
The 2007 season was what could only be considered a breakthrough. After a stellar run at Daytona that saw him in contention to win the first stock car race of Speedweeks, Clements endured a rough stretch that included a disappointing run at Nashville and mechanical failures at both Kansas and Kentucky, with two finishes outside the top 30. He shook it all off though, and went on a tear that saw him score seven top 10s in his final eight starts of the season, including his first career ARCA win… at the same Nashville track that he failed to crack the top 10 at the first time.
Clements’s ARCA resume is one that stacks up with just about every development driver that’s gone through that series’ ranks… except he’s done it all in his own stuff. And with opportunities like the one he all but had at Gibbs drying up across the NASCAR scene, Clements is now doing NASCAR in his own stuff.
“We only have one Nationwide car. It was given to me from McGill Motorsports, from John McGill, when I drove the No. 36 car and he sold out,” says Clements of the No. 50 car he’s campaigned part-time in the Nationwide Series since last season. “When I started driving for him, [McGill Motorsports] was going under anyway, so after the end of the year he gave me one of his cars and sold the rest.”
Clements has made the most of his one car, and in more ways than simply not wrecking his only Nationwide car. Still using engines built by his dad, Clements qualified for the CARQUEST 300 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway earlier this season… a race that, with 51 cars, had by far the most competitive field the Nationwide Series has seen in 2009.
“That was a competitive field,” recalled Clements when asked about the Charlotte race weekend. “And we had a bad practice because we blew up the first practice, five laps in. The second practice was only an hour, that goes by quick.”
“[That said], it was pretty cool to get into that race, especially to qualify 26th (the No. 50 team was contending for a top-20 finish before a loose wheel on the final pit stop relegated them to 27th). 26th doesn’t sound great, but we’re racing a car that’s five or six years old. You’ve got to be realistic when you go to these races with that kind of equipment.”
Clements’s realism carries past how he expects his No. 50 team to perform on the track: Much like Sellers told Frontstretch last month about his own future prospects, he knows his future in this sport is best served by landing a development deal with a big-time team. After all, what else could motivate a driver to park his own car in favor of practicing someone else’s?
“We were going to race Nashville and Kentucky, but this relief deal came up,” spoke Clements with regard to his own operation (the No. 50 team is now planning to enter the race at Chicagoland in a few weeks).
It’s got to take a lot for a competitor to sacrifice a chance to race to let another competitor do just that. And before one gets the wrong impression about Clements’s deal with JGR, there’s no guarantee, even if Busch or Logano finds themselves unable to make a trip from a Cup race to the Nationwide track, that Clements would in fact get to drive a JGR entry in competition.
“To be honest, that’s actually never been said,” said Clements when asked about the plan for he and the No. 20 car should inclement weather have influenced the Kentucky race. “I’m assuming it’d have to be.”
What’s for sure, is that the future for Clements truly is in the hands of a big team like JGR. Just like every smaller owner out there, Clements has felt the pinch of trying to scrounge up money to race.
“This past winter, [NASCAR] came by twice to our shop out of the blue, checking the car and wanting us to come to the track.”
“But even with these rules they’ve got, the motor running three times, the tapered spacer, even the six-tire set rule, that’s still $12,000. For a small team like us, we really can’t afford that. Racing just costs a lot of money.”
Plus, the situation is further complicated for Clements because his team only has one car. That’s rendered a substantial portion of the Nationwide schedule all but off-limits for the No. 50 team.
“We try to go to tracks I’ve been to, and the bigger tracks, too” says Clements, referring especially to his old ARCA stomping grounds. “We can’t take the one car to Bristol and bang it all around.”
With Sauter in his relief seat and the Milwaukee Mile a track that could prove treacherous to a literal single-car team, Clements will be sitting on the sidelines, along with his No. 50 machine, this weekend. And he’s certainly not happy about it… but that’s not to say this prospect is holding a grudge towards anyone or anything.
There’s certainly no ill-will held towards a sport that has knocked him around a bit. When asked what one race track he would add to the Nationwide slate, Clements quickly replied “Pocono.”
“I’m sure some people are like, Pocono? That place sucks! But it’s a fun place for the drivers.”
This coming from the same guy who lost what would have been his first career ARCA victory in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable on the same Pennsylvania triangle, running out of gas on the front straightaway with the checkered flag in sight,.
And despite how disheartening it’s been for Clements to see promising opportunities at JGR go by the wayside, he’s still actively campaigning for a spot in their fold, ready to truly take one for the team.
Need proof? After hearing of his affection for racing at Pocono, I asked Clements if there was any chance I’d see him dust off one of his ARCA cars for the Pennsylvania 200 to be run in August. Clements was very non-committal, as if he’d never even considered it.
Because that’s the same weekend that the Nationwide Series is hosting a standalone race at the Iowa Speedway. And the idea of practicing and qualifying the No. 18 Toyota at Iowa wasn’t just an attractive possibility… it was tattooed on this driver’s brain.