Last year Jeremy Clements shocked the NASCAR world, or better yet the entire racing world, when he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory by winning the Johnsonville 180 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. It was the first career NASCAR Xfinity Series win for the driver whose family-run team operates out of a shop in Spartanburg, SC.
The victory not only provided those who enjoy rooting for the Davids of the world in their perpetual battles with the Goliaths a reason to cheer but it also allowed the 33-year-old racer to achieve one of his lifelong goals.
Clements himself even had a hard time believing what had happened to him on that August day.
“It felt like it wasn’t even real,” Clements recalled in an interview with InsideDirtRacing.com. “I mean it was a dream come true and I couldn’t believe it was happening so I was definitely excited. It was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Man, it was just an unreal felling, something that I had never felt before. I just couldn’t believe it finally happened. I had dreamed of winning a NASCAR race my whole life so that was the coolest thing ever, so far.”
The dream almost turned to a nightmare as the Clements and the rest of the field raced toward the white flag on the 4-mile road course. Contact between his No. 51 Chevrolet and the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Matt Tifft sent the top-2 runners spinning off track just before they hit the long, uphill straightaway that led to the start/finish line. However, their lead over the rest of the pack was so large that Clements was able to right his car and assume the lead of the race.
“I thought I had screwed up and I was mad and I was thinking I can’t believe I just did that and gave this thing away,” Clements recounted. “I was mad at myself but it all happened so quick that I got the car rolling and pointed back the right way. Going up that long hill and I passed the white flag, they said for me to just bring it back around because you’ve got a huge lead and I was thinking I don’t see how that’s possible. I was thinking to myself this is crazy. We could win this race.”
But on such a long track with lap times that exceed two minutes, the hopeful driver had plenty of time to think.
“Then I was worried that a tire could blow out because we had spun out and you never know what could happen with that,” Clements continued. “About halfway through the lap I started thinking this is really going to happen so you better start thinking of what to say.”
Strategy and tire conservation went a long way toward providing the key to victory in Elkhart Lake. But even when everything comes together for a smaller team, the rich and powerful are still supposed to win in NASCAR… when everything goes as expected.
“I was very surprised,” Clements declared. “Road America is wore slap out so you really have to have a good car there on the long runs. The times drop off by a half-second a lap so you’ve got to keep driving your car and you’ve got to keep the tires on it and not abuse them. That’s really what we had that day. We just had a good long run car with a lot of speed in it. It still wasn’t perfect because I remember things we could do to make it better. Every year you go, you learn more and more to apply for the next time.”
The NASCAR Xfinity Series has now reached the time on its schedule in which the drivers and teams are once again set to take on road courses. Three of the next four races will feature tracks that call for both left and right turns with the first ever NASCAR race on the so-called “roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway coming later in the fall. And as far as Clements is concerned, that is just fine. For that matter, he feels much more confident in his team’s chances to do well on any type of track that brings strategy and driver ability into play over engineering.
“I feel like it gives us more of a chance to compete and run with the big teams versus the mile-and-a-half tracks,” the driver stated. “I think the road courses, the short tracks, and the big super speedways give us the chance to showcase what we can do and have the best days that you can have throughout the year.”
And more, “The road courses are just fun, it’s something different, I like shifting and driving the heck out of the car,” the former Dirt Late Model racer insisted. “That’s a lot of fun and there’s nothing else like it. You can really push it to its limit and I feel like that if the driver can do that he can be successful on a road course. You just can’t put yourself in a bad position by doing something dumb and that’s pretty easy to do at those places.”
Road course racing is just as much about strategy as speed. So, does the No. 51 crew map out a strategy ahead of time or just play things out as the race unfolds?
“I think that’s more of a crew chief question,” Clements pointed out. “I just try to keep the car on the track and let them call the race. That’s my dad and Danny Gill who do all that. They plan the races and come up with the strategy. We’re already talking about some of that stuff so hopefully we’ll have a good game plan. I don’t have much planning into that. I just drive as hard as I can and try not to do anything stupid.”
Racers who come from dirt racing backgrounds have often fared well on road courses. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer are examples of drivers who cut their racing teeth on dirt and have fared well on twisting road courses.
“I definitely think throttle control is a big key,” Clements explained of the relationship between dirt racing and road courses. “I think driving the car hard and slinging it around, kind of like you do on dirt when the track is tacky, then when it slicks off you’re having to be easy on the throttle. All of that comes into play for sure. I think that’s got to be some of it. I know when I first started road course racing in NASCAR I thought it was a little bit like dirt racing. It’s just fun and you can really drive the cars hard and then you’ve got to adapt just like at a dirt track. On a road course you attack it at first then once the tires start going away and your brakes start going away you have to be a lot easier.”
The car prepared for the 2017 Johnsonville 180 by the team led by veteran crew chief Danny Gill and renowned engine builder Tony Clements(Jeremy’s father) was ten years old at the time, which is quite old by NASCAR standards. That machine was easily the fastest car on the track as the laps clicked off and Clements picked off cars built by powerhouse organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing one by one.
So how was the Jeremy Clements Racing team able to shock the racing world with such an old car?
“I have no clue to be totally honest,” Clements admitted with a laugh. “That thing was a car we got years ago and it’s just all we had. All our cars are kind of old. The newest one we have is three years old. We don’t have a lot of new stuff but we are putting new parts on them like good brakes and good transmissions and all the stuff you need. It’s pretty funny that we would even be able to win with that car because going into that race we had been in a wreck at Mid-Ohio and knocked the front end off then the week before that at Watkins Glen we had everything in the rear end to break. So this car, going into Road America, had all new stuff on it because it had been killed at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. It was a blessing in disguise really because in that race we were finally able to have everything we needed fresh in the car for that one race and it all held together, thank God.”
This time around the team will have a newer road course car, but the proven race winner will serve as a backup on occasion as well as the primary at least once during this stretch of upcoming road course races.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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