By Dustin Albino

Throughout the 2021 Xfinity Series season, Jeremy Clements surprised the NASCAR world by qualifying for the playoffs on points. Just when one thought the team would squander, it kept piling respectable finish after respectable finish. 

In the months prior to the start of the playoffs, the family-run Jeremy Clements Racing led the series in most laps completed. Out of the opening 26 events, Clements completed all but 14 laps. Impressive for a team that houses four full-time employees. 

And though Clements didn‘t find Victory Lane as he did at Road America in 2017 —  one of the biggest upsets in series history — it was a career year in many other regards. His eight top-10 efforts shattered his previous high of five in a single year (2020). The No. 51 team also posted its best average finish of 16.4, while earning a team-record amount of stage points. 

“We didn‘t win, so that would have been a dream season,” Clements told recently. “We had a lot of great runs, a lot of success. It was good, but you‘ve always got to be looking ahead. Racing is a sport where what you did last weekend is what matters.”

Since the playoffs began last year, the No. 51 team has been on a proverbial downward spiral, despite most of the gremlins being no fault of their own. Early in the playoff opener at Las Vegas, Clements crashed out. And just one of his eight top 10s came in the seven-race playoff, making it an early exit in his second postseason berth.

Admittedly, Clements doesn‘t look back on 2021 much. The team runs different setups compared to then, and the competition has gotten much stiffer with the addition of multiple midpack teams. The team is still using seven cars from 2019 that it purchased from Chip Ganassi Racing. 

Through the opening 21 races of 2022, Clements has a trio of top-10 finishes. Those are highlighted by a fourth-place effort at New Hampshire, a race filled with attrition. 

“It‘s been a pretty rough year,” Clements said. “It‘s been tough, with a lot of bad luck. It just hasn‘t been our year. Even the top 10s we got, we had problems. At Road America, we finished ninth and had an uncontrolled tire violation on the last stop. We had a better car than ninth — we had a top-five car.”

The year has been highlighted by wrecking out just 13 laps in at Daytona. At COTA, the No. 51 car was running inside the top five when Clements was penalized for cutting the course in the chicane. He also had fuel pump issues in consecutive races at Talladega and Dover. Then, at the team‘s home track of Darlington, Clements was inside the top five when he was wrecked on the final lap in a collision with Ryan Truex. 

The end result is an average finish of 22nd (his lowest since 2017) and sits 19th in the championship standings. 

“Racing is a tough-ass sport,” Clements said. “It‘s up and down, a roller coaster. You‘ve got to weather the storm, but you‘ve got to continue trying to get better constantly. You can‘t just stay where you are.”

There are positives, though. The team believes it has comparable speed to its breakout campaign last year. JCR, while running on a much smaller budget compared to the bigger teams, has a similar amount of funding as it did last year. 

The team is just hoping to shed the misfortune in the homestretch of the season.

“It‘s been one thing after another with good cars, putting ourselves in the same positions that we did last year,” Mark Setzer, who‘s in his second year as Clements‘ crew chief, said. “Very frustrating and disappointing to not be able to have the showings that we were used to.

“Every time we‘ve had great cars, we‘ve been in accidents or something else happens. A lot of times, we‘re based on what the finishing order says post race, but that really hasn‘t shown the speed that we have. Some people will say, ‘What‘s wrong with them?‘ There‘s nothing wrong.”

JCR, which builds its own engines, continues to grind away at its Spartanburg, S.C. race shop to be prepared. At some point, roles will be reversed and the team will catch a break. 

“We don‘t need to reinvent the wheel,” Setzer added, “we just need to keep doing our part and making sure everything is done correctly and complete and let the cards fall.”

The series heads to Watkins Glen for Sunday‘s Sunoco Go Rewards 200, where Clements has a pair of 11th-place finishes in 10 starts. Earlier this year, he finished ninth at Road America, another road course, and ran around the top 10 for the majority of the race. 

Between now and the season finale at Phoenix, the series will return to Darlington and make its annual stop at Bristol, two of Clements‘ favorite tracks on the schedule. With a slim chance of making the playoffs via a win, his main goal is to remain inside the top 20 in drivers points, and cracking the top 20 in owners points (currently 24th, 22 points below 20th) to get bonus money that will help the team upgrade for the 2023 season. 

Clements concluded, “I‘m hungry for a win. I want to win so bad for this team.”

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