Chances by Thomas Martins

Until last year, I had only driven for one person – my father.

I’ve been a professional racecar driver since 2009, but when your dad owns the team, it’s easy to sense the skepticism from the other folks in the garage. That changed for me at Daytona in 2017, when Shane Huffman gave me a chance to take our speedway truck over to MDM Motorsports. It was exciting. I knew for the first time in my NASCAR career I was going to the track with an opportunity to win.

But on the second lap of the race, I was involved in a crash. For the second year in a row, I finished dead last at Daytona. It was the only last place finish MDM had during the entire 2017 season.

I finally got my big break, and it was over in less than two minutes.

It’s amazing I got any break at all. In 2016, I had the most DNF’s in the NCTWS. I blogged repetitively about our team’s struggles, my family’s finances, & my desire for recognition in our sport (if you want to get the full effect, you can read all the posts here). I felt like we had a tremendous amount of bad luck, but there’s no denying the reputation I had in the garage was a 30 year old, back of the pack guy with a knack for tearing up equipment – I was better known for writing than driving.

I drove the second race of the year for Martins Motorsports – we finished 20 something at Atlanta. Brandon Brown, who DNQ’d at Daytona for us, qualified well but struggled through a spin in the third race at Martinsville. My dad and I weren’t sure how the team was going to make it through the year.

Instead of shutting down, we decided to sell our trucks & take a chance on a partial schedule in the Xfinity Series, our first attempt in the series since a horribly failed season in 2014. With the higher payout, we figured we could make the same amount of money with a lesser schedule. Of course, we didn’t qualify in our first attempt at Richmond - a $20,000 whiff. Leaving the track that day, my father and I didn’t speak. It was yet another disappointment in a career filled with them. I broke down crying when I finally got back to my apartment.

I was ready to walk away from the sport.

I was off a few days that week. I slept late. I didn’t eat much. I don’t think I was watching anything on tv. I might’ve been scrolling through twitter on my phone when it rang. It was my dad. He asked me if I wanted to drive the Pocono Xfinity Series race for BJ McLeod.

I knew BJ from early 2016. We purchased a couple SB2 engines from him when we started our truck team. We raced against each other a couple times. He was a nice guy that looked like a walking affliction ad. I knew he bought cars & points from Roush at the end of 2015, and tried to run 2 teams in 2016. I didn’t remember them having a ton of success. Then again, neither did we.

 “What’s the catch,” I asked him. There’s always a catch – usually cash. I’ve been offered cup rides, truck rides, late model rides, and every offer ends with how much money it’s going to cost for me to hop in the seat. I’m always flattered, but I can’t ever afford it. We ran our own team because when things went well (which was rare, admittedly) we came closer to breaking even than we ever could throwing money to another team. At that point, you’re just a revenue stream, not a driver.

There was no catch with BJ – he was just nervous.

His #78 car had underperformed over the course of the year, and now had slipped so far down the owner point standings that it was in danger of missing races to provisional-backed teams. It had already missed a couple of events.

BJ needed a driver. He had been behind the wheel of the #8 car, and his regular teammate, Jeff Green, was now running with Ryan Sieg. When my name was suggested as a replacement, he hesitated. He called around to a few other owners & managers. They immediately brought up my history for crashes. They thought he was crazy. Wrecked equipment on a small team like BJ’s is a death-blow. There are no backup cars. No shop crew. There was a huge risk.

Luckily for me, BJ McLeod is a guy that likes to take chances. I think he liked the idea of picking a guy that no one else wanted. He was convinced some of my struggles were tied to my father – not because of parental pressure, but because of our management of the team. I knew how much things cost when we had a bad break. I put that pressure on myself.

How good could I be if all I had to worry about was driving the racecar?

I found out later that BJ looked up my results from 2016. Not just the finishes - nothing spectacular there. Two top-15’s in 20 races didn’t jump off the stat sheet. He looked up practice times from every race. He told me I consistently outperformed my equipment on the time sheets. For him, that was key. He needed someone that could outperform a few of the cars that could knock him out of the race, and someone that was willing to stick their neck out for a team that could get sent home at anytime.

Most drivers won’t.

Guaranteed starting spots are golden tickets. They allow teams to sell rides & sponsorship with promises – not hopes. No matter how fast a team is, anything can happen in qualifying. Parker Kligerman – who won the race at Talladega this past year – didn’t qualify for the race the year earlier. Our truck team shut down in part because I couldn’t guarantee a starting spot at Daytona to potential drivers. No one was willing to sign a deal with us on the hope we’d bring a truck fast enough to qualify on speed alone.

For me though, the decision was easy – BJ McLeod believed in me. If he was willing to take a chance on me, I was willing to take a chance on him.

BJ made it clear who our competition was: Johnny Davis, SS Greenlight, Jimmy Means, Carl Long, & Mario Gosselin. In the nine races I drove for BJMM, I scored the second most points of anyone from those teams – tied with BJ himself. I only had 1 DNF, when a left front lower control arm broke at Bristol.I also finished 11th at Iowa, which is my highest career NASCAR finish.

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Hopefully I helped BJ McLeod Motorsports out of a rut. BJ finished 11th at Daytona. Josh Bilicki finished 11th at Road America. I know BJ McLeod Motorsports helped me. I had owners & drivers in the garage congratulating me on a weekly basis. I had a reporters speaking to me that had never known my name.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I truly belong in a NASCAR garage. I have three people to thank for that: my parents and BJ McLeod.

He’s going to let me drive for him again in 2018. I’ll be a spectator at Daytona, but I’m sure I’ll be in the seat plenty this season. I’m not sure what my schedule will be this year, or what number I’m going to run, but BJ & his team have given me something I’ve always longed for in our sport: respect. And for that, I’ll never be able to thank him enough.