Clements wins 1st career NASCAR race at Road America
Richfield's Bilicki finishes career best 12th

By NICHOLAS DETTMANN - Daily News

August 28, 2017

Jeremy Clements holds up the trophy after winning Sunday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race, the Johnsonville 180, at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Photo by Elaine Mueller/For Conley News Service

ELKHART LAKE – Jeremy Clements, a 32-year-old native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, made his 256th career NASCAR Xfinity Series start Sunday in the Johnsonville 180 at Road America.

Even he admitted he was a bit overzealous in the waning laps of the race. Who could blame him? He was 0 for 255.

“I was licking my chops,” Clements said. “I was just so excited it was right there for me to get.”

Clements chased down Matt Tifft, who had a 6.272-second lead with six laps to go, to where he was on Tifft's back bumper heading into the final corner with two laps to go.

Clements stuck the nose of his No. 51 car on the inside of Tifft's No. 19 and the two collided and spun off the track.

“I thought, 'Yeah. Wow. Good job. Way to go. You could've won this race and you just gave it up,'” Clements said.

Thankfully, they were more than 10 seconds ahead of third-place Michael Annett.

Clements was first to get his car pointed the right direction and drove away from Tifft, who also eventually got back on track, and went on to end his drought, winning Sunday's race and making him now 1 for 256.

That '1' sounds really good.

“I can't believe we won the race,” said Clements, who made his NASCAR debut July 26, 2003, at Pikes Peak in Fountain, Colorado, when he was 18 years old.

“I just didn't give up and luckily it worked out,” Clements said. “We've been working so hard. To be here is a blessing.”

In those 255 previous starts, he had just 12 top-10 finishes and one top-five finish. He'd also never led more than eight laps in a single race. He led 10 on Sunday, giving him 60 career laps led in the series.

“I drive for a small family team,” Clements said, while sitting next to his father, Tony. “To get a win in any of these starts is amazing. I've just got to thank my dad. It's a miracle, it's a blessing. I've got to thank the good Lord above. I can't believe this. It feels like a dream come true.”

Tony Clements added, “I knew that he could do it if we could just get him the chance.”

Annett got around Tifft on the final lap and finished second and Tifft came across the finish line in third place. Justin Marks rallied from a spin off Turn 14 on lap 24 of the 45-lap race to finish fourth and Brendan Gaughan rounded out the top five.

Richfield's Josh Bilicki finished a career-best 12th for BJ McLeod Motorsports. Elkhart Lake's Nicolas Hammann finished 29th, first car one lap down.

“It definitely feels awesome,” Bilicki said.

In hindsight, Jeremy admitted he was impatient.

“When you're in the moment, you're like, 'Man, I just got to get this thing, get away from him before he can move me out of the way again,'” he said. “That's what I was worried about. I knew I could get by him. I was just worried he'd get into me and move me out of the way and we'd go back and forth.

“I should've been more a little more patient, but it was the last lap.”

 Jeremy Clements hugs a crew member after Clements won his first career NASCAR race Sunday in the Xfinity Series' Johnsonville 180 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Photo by Elaine Mueller/For Conley News Service

Jeremy is carrying on a family tradition long rooted in racing, especially in NASCAR, for more than half a century. He is the grandson of Crawford Clements, famed NASCAR owner and a renowned engine builder. His uncle is Louis Clements, who was a championship crew chief for 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rex White. White won the 1960 NASCAR national championship, today known as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“We knew that if we had a chance anywhere, it'd be at a road course or a super speedway because a lot of times, you can work things around and get yourself in the best position,” Tony said. “We knew that he would prevail if we could just get him the opportunity. We thank the good Lord for giving him the opportunity. This is a dream come true.”

The day started with rain throughout the morning, eventually wiping out qualifying. Thus, the field was set by owner's points. Clements started the race in 24th place, the deepest a driver has had to come to win a NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America. The previous record was 12th, set by Reed Sorensen in 2011, the second running of the event.

It was a rather uneventful first 10 laps until the completion of the first stage. James Davison won the first stage ahead of Marks, Austin Cindric, Brennan Poole, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Reed, Tifft, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Sheldon Creed.

In the second stage, aggression picked up with more drivers using their cars to make space to pass for position.

Throughout the first 20 laps of the race, several strategies were unfolding up and down pit road.

The second stage was won by Daniel Hemric, followed by Ben Kennedy, Elliott Sadler, Allgaier, JJ Yeley, Tifft, Clements, Gaughan, Casey Mears and Blake Koch.

Toward the end of the second stage, Davison was in a battle with Ross Chastain and Cindric for position. Davison got sent to the inside wall heading into Turn 6 and made heavy contact with the wall. That eventually put him out of the race, that after leading all of the first 11 laps of the event, which wound up being the most in the field.

“We had nowhere to go, totally innocent,” Davison said. “We had a car to win. We'll be back next year.”

After the restart of the final stage on lap 23, it was all green flag until the checkered flag, allowing several of the early-race strategies play out.

After a round of green-flag stops, Clements was in the lead with 10 laps to go.

With nine laps to go, Clements made his final pit stop from the lead. But, because the field was stretched out over the 4-mile road course, Clements managed to stay in the top five. With seven laps to go, Clements was in fifth place and had a significant advantage, tires five to six laps fresher than the rest of the field.

“We felt like tires would be the most important thing,” said Danny Gill, Jeremy's crew chief. “Obviously we need green flag racing in order to make that work.”

With six laps to go, Tifft led Gaughan by more than 6.2 seconds.

With five to go, Clements passed Gaughan to take second and cut the gap to five seconds. A lap later, the gap was down to 3.297 seconds. With two to go, it was down to 1.286 seconds.

“I'm driving as hard as I can the whole race,” Jeremy said.

He added, “I couldn't see (Tifft). Then I finally started seeing him and finally started catching him. I was like, 'Wow. We really got something for this as long as it goes green the rest of the way.'

“When I finally started seeing (Tifft), I knew it was going to be for real.”

Road America was already a special place for Jeremy before Sunday's victory. In 2011, Jeremy made his road-course debut with then Nationwide Series. He finished 32nd that day. In 2014, he finished sixth.

With the victory, Jeremy is the fifth first-time winner in the event's eight-year history, joining Nelson Piquet Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Gaughan and Michael McDowell. He's also the eighth different winner.

“These road-course races are wild races,” Jeremy said. “This one and Mid-Ohio are the ones, in my mind, I come and I can do really good at, top five, top 10, maybe even win like we did today. You don't have Cup guys here. You've got just the regular teams. That just gives you a shot.”