SPARTANBURG, S.C. — In the 5,000-square foot shop that has been home to Jeremy Clements’ racing career since he started driving go-karts at age 7, a pair of shelves showcase trophies from his youth.
Stacked three-deep in some places, they occupy about every inch on the 8-foot-long shelves. The trophies displayed are a fraction of the hardware he’s earned racing.
“It’s pretty damn cool to look at them,” Clements, a third-generation racer, tells NBC Sports in a brief moment of reflection. “They’re old now.”
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But just as special.
That’s the message the 38-year-old Clements told a nephew one day, saying, “You keep those trophies. One day you’re going to look at them like I do and reminisce about them.”
Most of Clements’ time is focused forward, though, making sure his family-owned team has what it needs for the next race. That can be anything from parts for the car to travel plans. At Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing — teams that have combined to win 16 of the 22 Xfinity races this season — a driver is focused on just driving. Clements doesn’t have such luxury or such success.
Still, he keeps racing.
Saturday, Clements will make his 454th career Xfinity Series start, moving past Joe Nemechek and Morgan Shepherd to fifth on the all-time list.
It’s easy to skip over this milestone because Clements, who is 93 starts from the all-time record held by Kenny Wallace, isn’t the series headliner that John Hunter Nemechek, Austin Hill or Justin Allgaier are.
In his 453 previous Xfinity starts, Clements has two wins. While that can be viewed as a testament to what he and his team have achieved with no Cup affiliation, the reality is that most races he enters, his chances of winning are slim.
With all the success he had racing at local short tracks — he was so dominant that two tracks put bounties on him for anyone that could beat him — it’s easy to wonder why he continues to compete in the Xfinity Series. How could anyone keep competing when victory is so rare?
Justin Allgaier has run 26 fewer Xfinity races than Clements but their paths diverge from there.
Since last season, Allgaier has twice as many wins, four times as many top fives and nearly as many top-10 finishes as Clements has in his Xfinity career.
Allgaier, who has known Clements from before their time in the Xfinity Series, admires the tenacity Clements and his father, Tony, have to continue racing in NASCAR’s No. 2 series.
“They’re not willing to give up on the dream,” Allgaier told NBC Sports.
That drive has helped Clements make the playoffs the past two years. He’ll need to win one of the remaining four races in the regular season to make the playoffs. His next chance comes Saturday at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). The series then goes to Daytona. Clements is the defending race winner there.
Each year, the challenge grows for Xfinity teams not aligned with Cup organizations. They don’t have the resources, manpower and often funding to compete against the bigger teams for victories at many tracks.
Clements’ best finish this season is 14th on the Circuit of The Americas road course. His most recent top-10 finish came 32 races ago in his win at Daytona last year.
“He’s in between maybe some of the top mega teams, but he’s still well above the real small teams,” Allgaier said of Clements. “That’s a hard place to be. It’s a hard place to be in year after year after year.”
While the Clements family’s race engine business is successful in the short track ranks, Tony Clements has made it clear he won’t fund his son’s racing to the detriment of the business. The team has multiple sponsors but still remains one of the smaller organizations.
“We can sit back and holler this little team deal all we want,” Tony Clements told NBC Sports. “We can make that excuse, if we need us an excuse or crutch or something, but if we realize we have opportunity facing us … and address it accordingly and give him a chance, give him a chance to win, he’ll win.
“You’ve got to put him in position to win. We’re not able every week to put him in a position to win. We can only put him in position to win on occasions. Road courses seem to be more of that possibility because they put more in the driver’s hands at those tracks. You go to Charlotte, you go to Texas, you go to Kansas, you better have a hot rod.”
That’s more difficult for Clements’ team to provide because of the limited resources.
Clements’ team is based out of a shop built in 1974 by his grandfather Crawford, an engine builder who also was a crew chief for wins by Junior Johnson, Buck Baker and A.J. Foyt in the early 1960s. The building is not large enough to store all eight of the team’s cars at once.
Years ago, Tony Clements bought the land across the street as he looked ahead to the future.
“If we acquired a big enough sponsor, we could build a Cup shop or something like that,” Tony Clements said.
The land remains undeveloped.
New opportunity each week
So why do this? Why go into many races knowing the odds are stacked against you and then go do it the next week and next week and next week?
“It’s tough to answer,” Clements says, sitting on a rolling garage seat between the team’s pull down rig and one of his cars. “You get definitely down a lot because you beat yourself up. You’re just beat up when you know you can do it, run up front.
“You’re here doing it on your own. It’s tough to get top-15 finishes, let alone win. Even though we’ve done it twice. I’d love to do it more obviously.
“It’s very taxing on your well-being, your head. You wreck a car, it sets you back. Just all of it. It will wear you down. But … (there’s) a new opportunity every weekend to go out there and show what you can do.”
But Clements also knows he’s fortunate to be in this spot. While competing in at 311 Speedway in Madison, North Carolina, in July 2004, the driveshaft broke on his car and a piece of steel tore through the car and struck him. His right hand was nearly severed.
He was rushed to Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital and underwent a nine-hour surgery. It would be the first of 10 surgeries he had on his hand. Doctors told Clements he would not race again.
“They’re smart people, but they’re wrong,” Clements said. “I just said (to them), ‘You just need to make it where I can grip a wheel. I’m racing somehow, someway.”
He lost a year of racing to recover but returned in 2005. He competed in select ARCA races in 2006-08.
In 2008, Clements did some testing for Joe Gibbs Racing and qualified Kyle Busch’s Xfinity car at Kentucky Speedway when Busch was competing elsewhere.
“It was stupid fast,” Clements said of Busch’s car. “I just remember thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like to drive for a big team. Wow, this was a lot easier.’”
While he hoped those opportunities could lead to more rides, it didn’t.
He went full-time Xfinity racing in 2011. Clements had no more than two top-10 finishes in each of the next four seasons.
Clements scored his first series win in 2017 in his 256th series start, taking the checkered flag at Road America.
“If we gave up, we’d have never been in that position,” Clements said of the Road America victory. “(You) keep working hard and hopefully we have that shot again.”
That moment — and the hope it brings — can power one through the late hours at the shop fixing a car or getting ready for the next race.
The memory of when he walked on the charter plane for Xfinity teams with his father after that Road America win remains fresh. Everyone on board clapped and high-fived him.
His second victory came last year at Daytona in triple overtime — five years to the day after the Road America victory.
“What the hell happened?” Clements radioed his crew after the race ended at 1:28 a.m. ET. “We won? … What the hell?”
He stayed through the next day at Daytona.
“I felt like a frickin’ champion,” Clements said, smiling and laughing at the memory.
“I never thought we could win there, really, in my equipment. To finally achieve that goal was, obviously, phenomenal. I never saw it coming. I remember going into the race, it was like 10:45 p.m. and thinking, ‘I’m a little tired before this race even starts.’ I was like I just want to get through this damn thing and get us a good day, not wreck this car and get out of this damn place.”
Again, Clements notes if he had given up, he wouldn’t have experienced the euphoria he did at Daytona.
“You love what you’re doing, you’re dedicated, what else you going to do?” Clements said. “What am I going to stop? What am I going to do anyway? I have no idea. I’m not going to give up now.”