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They say second place is the first loser. Well, try telling that to two drivers where winning Friday night at Daytona was actually taking the green flag.
“I didn’t have a ride a few weeks ago,” said Ryan Truex after scoring a runner-up finish in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series race. “You think about it a lot and you wonder what you’re going to do.”
“There was no chance,” added Parker Kligerman, Friday night’s third-place finisher. “You come to peace with like, OK, what happens from here on out I’m just going to put my best foot forward and do it.”
Both men are friends, bonded together by the obstacles life throws your way. At one point, Truex was a rising star, the younger brother of Martin whose near-championship ride with a single-car team made him 2015’s Sprint Cup Cinderella story. But while the shoe fit for Martin, whose Cup career has lasted nearly a decade at this point, Ryan’s racing life turned into a pumpkin long ago. A number of driver development deals failed to work out, potential talent turning stale on the shelf as Ryan saw opportunities land with drivers that had more sponsorship money.
It was the way of the NASCAR world until BK Racing called with a dream offer: run full-time for 2014 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. Truex accepted, despite never running a full schedule in any of the sport’s top three series. Inexperience combined with subpar equipment quickly proved to be too much; Truex failed to qualify for the Daytona 500, posted just one top-25 finish in 23 starts and got dumped once he suffered an injury in the fall.
“It’s easy to give up on yourself,” Truex said. “It’s easy to quit.”
Fellow 2014 rookie Kligerman also found himself on the sidelines. The victim of a bad money deal with Swan Racing, he saw his owner pull the plug less than ten races into his freshman season. A former Team Penske development driver had no place left to turn, no money left to spend and no one other than television willing to take a chance on a 24-year-old some already considered “washed up.”
“I saw Brian Vickers say it and he kind of made peace with never driving again,” he said. “I think you start to look back a lot differently, and then you’re like, I could’ve done this or that differently. You know what, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do. You’ve got to look forward.”
But to push forward, what you need is a chance. For both they came in the way of unexpected phone calls. Truex is partnered with Shigeaki Hattori’s Hattori Racing Enterprises, whose small-time No. 81 Truck team has never run the series full-time. Daytona brought sponsorship from Goodyear but a poor finish meant a full season was far from guaranteed. Kligerman, meanwhile got a chance to pair up with the tiny team that can in the Truck Series, Ricky Benton Racing. The shop has a total of three full-time employees and runs a handful of superspeedway and short-track races where they feel they can roll out competitive with limited sponsorship.
For outsiders, simply running inside the top 20 and bringing the car home in one piece would be a “win.” But these men are not only racers, they understand the opportunity lost to get to the top. It’s a lot harder to climb up that mountain a second time.
“My option,” Truex said, “Is go work on a clam boat for my dad. I refuse to do that, so that’s why you see me at the racetrack every weekend.”
“I’ve got two jobs,” added Kligerman, who himself has carved out a niche as an analyst for NBC Sports. “The recession hit in the midst of us getting into NASCAR. We laugh about that a lot. We are recession kids, recession racers.“
The only way forward for both is to work themselves out of it. Kligerman faltered early, fighting a vibration that cost him track position in a stop under yellow. Truex, a fresh face in the Truck Series had to find friends to draft with while fighting multi-truck operations alongside him. Yet as the laps wound down, the “Big Ones” happened and both the Nos. 81 and 92 were left standing. And if not for the final yellow flag for contact that caused Christopher Bell‘s flip, these single-car teams could have aligned with each other up front.
“It just all came down to who could bump draft the best without locking up and stay out there, and the side draft on the top was huge, too,” said Truex. “So you just had to make the right moves and be there at the end and we were, and unfortunately it just didn’t end up in our favor.”
Still, positive momentum from Daytona can do volumes to put both men back on the map. Truex hopes additional sponsors will come on board to run full-time; as of now, the team is guaranteed Atlanta and Martinsville. A championship run is less likely for Kligerman, scheduled for seven races with the RBR outfit but another top-5 finish? You never know. Suddenly, television may need to take a back seat.
“You just can’t give up,” said Truex. “You don’t say no to an opportunity. That’s what we did this weekend, and it worked out for us.”