- Brant James, Contributor, espnW.com
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If the floor of his race shop isn't swept to his satisfaction, Joe Nemechek sweeps it. If parts need to be fetched from a vendor for either his Sprint Cup or Nationwide series cars, Joe Nemechek will likely be the one doing the fetching, unless he's busy updating his website with bylined news releases.
Or unless he's under a deadline machining parts for the Super Late Model car his son, John Hunter, will drive on a given weekend. And then there are sponsor calls. Lots of them.
Times are better, financially, for the 49-year-old driver/owner/everything else, but that doesn't mean they're easier, he said.
Such is the life of the modern NASCAR driver/owner/hustler. Few in NASCAR do both as vigorously and consistently as Nemechek in the shadows of the megateams that rule the sport.
"Every day is a challenge and I look at it as an opportunity," Nemechek said. "We have a small group of guys [at NEMCO Motorsports]. We're in a partnership this year with Jay Robinson and we've been able to run all the Cup races so far. We're building."
It's a slow process, often measured not so much by on-track performance but by the ability to get there.
"We basically have three cars that are finished. That's all we have," he said of his Cup fleet. "Compared to the big teams, we're so far behind. You can't even compare it. But we're working really hard to get our stuff better every week, actually working on building a couple new Cup cars.
"The Nationwide cars are mostly the stuff they just updated from last year, and we've been running well with that."
Nemechek won the 1992 Nationwide championship as a driver/owner and has 16 career wins over 24 seasons and 397 starts in the second-tier series. He has four wins in 625 Cup starts over 21 years, most recently at Kansas Speedway -- site of this week's event -- in 2004. He is nothing if not a survivor, and there is the feeling that he isn't going anywhere.
His endurance and survival instincts have helped place him fourth all time in starts in NASCAR's top three series, with 1,029. He is in elite company, trailing just seven-time series champion and all-time wins leader Richard Petty (1,182), Mark Martin (1,120) and Michael Waltrip (1,059).
Nemechek has maintained some semblance of his own organization even while racing for others, including Hendrick Motorsports and the now-defunct MB2 Motorsports and Ginn Racing (MB2 changed its name to Ginn Racing, and a subsequent merger folded Ginn into Dale Earnhardt Inc.). Nemechek's mother, Martha, was a proud and ever-present extension of her son's sponsor relationship with the U.S. Army at MB2 and Ginn, wearing fatigues and other camouflage apparel to races. His younger brother, John, was killed in a 1997 Truck series crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"Joe is a racer and that's what he and his family are good at it," said ESPN analyst and former Cup champion Dale Jarrett. "They have experienced highs, and obviously a terrible low in the sport. It's amazing to see them run these two operations and make it all work. They show up every week and put fast race cars out there, and they know when they can race, and they try to make the points and try to make a good showing on the days they can.
"It's a very humbling experience, I know, for someone who has a championship in the Nationwide Series and a former Cup winner. But I admire Joe and his family and the way they hang in there."
Cobbling together a loyal but small cadre of sponsors and operating a threadbare employee roster is taxing, Nemechek said, but "gratifying." He employs three full-time workers (crew chief Steven Gray, a head mechanic and truck driver) on his Nationwide team and "six or seven" (crew chief Scott Eggleston, a car chief, couple mechanics and a fabricator, plus occasional part-timers) on his Sprint Cup team, which has made every race this season, and has a top result of 29th at Bristol.
"It's small, man, I'm telling you," he said. "It's a lot of work."
Nemechek's goal is to run every Sprint Cup and Nationwide race this season, but funding has yet to be secured for all them. With many huge teams grappling with the same problem, the situation gets no easier.
"We're basically race-by-race right now," he said. "We're looking for some partners to help us. We have a lot going on. We're talking to some guys about possibly renting a Nationwide ride for some races. My son is running his Super Late Model. He has a lot going on. We're looking for guys that want to come in and rent a ride on that thing, too."
Money, and the pursuit of it, has always been interlaced with racing, especially so for the driver/owner. It takes a toll. Sprint Cup driver Kevin Harvick expressed relief after shuttering the Nationwide and Truck series teams he and his wife spent years planning and building, and Kyle Busch -- a former NEMCO Motorsports driver -- has experienced a Nationwide renaissance with four wins this season after stepping out of his team's equipment and driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"Times are changing," Nemechek said. "Man, it's really tough trying to do it on your own right now. Really tough, with the technology, especially in the Cup series. Every week it just grows by leaps and bounds. This new Gen-6 car is … the big teams just have such an advantage. The best thing about driving for another team is you don't have to worry about fixing the cars, and when you're the driver, man, you don't have to worry about paying the bills and dealing with everything that goes on with it. Driving for another team is nice. You can just focus on that. There's pros and cons.
Joe is a racer and that's what he and his family are good at it. They have experienced highs, and obviously a terrible low in the sport. It's amazing to see them run these two operations and make it all work.
"-- Dale Jarrett
"For me, I want to drive a competitive race car and go as fast as I can every lap, and I think if I have a shot at doing that, either driving for somebody else or driving for myself … it all goes back to what kind of funding you have to make the car go faster."
The difference between how large teams and small ones like his do their daily business is significant, he said. Since a championship-caliber Cup team needs "$20-30 million," he said, his team is left trying to be ready to exploit opportunities as they arise, both competitively and commercially.
"It's a whole different deal. When we were at the top of the Nationwide Series here at NEMCO Motorsports, we had 30-some people working here, and it's what it takes to be up there and challenge for wins," he said. "You've got to have it. Right now we understand there's going to be a few shots where we do have an opportunity to win; the speedway races and the short-track races, I think we can run well. When it starts getting into the big aerodynamic tracks, man, we're at such a disadvantage."
Nemechek said a 14th-place Nationwide finish at California was enabled because the tires deployed by Goodyear eroded quicker than expected, making conditions more slippery and allowing him to fall back on his experience with loose race cars.
Most of the time, he said, his team feels like it's just trying to keep up.
"Cup program, we're just getting cars built," he said. "We're so far behind from the start of the year, you can't even hardly talk about that one. The Nationwide program, with such a small group of guys -- we'll bring some part-time guys in on a weekend that like to come and help -- but the car is [the] competitor. We were 14th at California, and for what we're working with, man, it was a very successful day."
Especially, Nemechek said, since the Nationwide Series field is laden with contending race cars being churned out by large teams, many of which also compete in Sprint Cup.
"Gibbs has his three or four cars. JR Motorsports, which is Hendrick, has two or three or four cars going," he said. "Turner [Scott Motorsports], there's at least three or four. Penske's got two. Childress has got three. If I'm to run in the top 15 right now, you've got to beat some really good cars. Anytime you can do that, it says a lot about what you're doing."
At this point, persevering.
16dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information