Gragson had just been cleared from the infield care center after a vicious crash. He had been contending for the lead in the second of three overtime restarts before the incident ended his race.
But Gragson’s disappointment faded when he saw a monitor and the final lap of the rain-delayed race.
“Holy s—-!” Gragson said. “Yeah! Let’s go! Jeremy just won it!”
Gragson admits “I kind of made a little scene in (the infield care center), but everybody was pumped up, all the doctors.”
As Clements circled the track after the caution waved and ended the race at 1:28 a.m. ET, he radioed his crew: “What the hell happened? We won? … What the hell?”
What happened was remarkable — especially since his win occurred five years to the day that he won at Road America for his only other Xfinity Series victory.
But to win at Daytona? This speedway, so special for so many in the sport, has extra meaning for Clements. His family was with Rex White when White won the 1960 NASCAR title. Jeremy’s grandfather was the crew chief for A.J. Foyt when Foyt won the July 4 race at Daytona in 1964.
Clements spent his childhood “racing and tearing up my mom and dad’s yard in a yard kart and just dreaming about having an opportunity to race.”
After winning at Daytona, Clements struggled to describe the feeling.
“Frickin’ phenomenal,” he said at about 2:30 a.m. ET. “Maybe I can give you some better words another day after I think about it and really realize it. It’s just incredible and thrilled beyond belief.”
Clements’ words work well in this shocking result. In 24 previous Xfinity races at Daytona, he had finished in the top 10 twice. He had never finished better than eighth at Daytona until this race.
Clements’ journey to victory lane at Daytona mirrors his career. The 37-year-old from Spartanburg, South Carolina, almost had his racing career end in 2004 when a driveshaft broke on his dirt late model and came through the car and nearly ripped his hand off. He cried and screamed in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. There was talk of possibly having to amputate the hand. Instead, it was saved. It took 10 surgeries.
After winning at Daytona, Clements thanked God for saving his hand.
“The doctors literally told me, ‘you’ll never race again,’ ” Clements said. “I was like you all are crazy, just do your job and make it the best you can and we’ll figure it out from there.”
And he made it to NASCAR’s No. 2 series. Clements did it with a family team in an era where family teams struggle to compete against the powerhouses of JR Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Kaulig Racing.
But Clements and his team have learned to survive. He does whatever is needed, whether it’s working on the car with the team’s four full-time employees, booking hotel rooms or anything else.
His competitors recognize the challenges Clements faces and understood what the win meant.
“I’m really happy for Jeremy and his dad and the whole Clements family,” AJ Allmendinger said after finishing third. “This sport is based on a lot of big teams, but it’s the little teams like that that make the sport go around as well. … I’d love to be in victory lane right now, but to see all the family members and everybody associated with that team is pretty awesome.”
Clements’ win overshadowed the career-high finish of runner-up Timmy Hill. But Hill also celebrated Clements’ win and went to Victory Lane to congratulate him.
“It’s a high,” Hill said of his finish. “It’s really thrilling. It’s really cool to see Jeremy win. What you see on television is how he really is. He’s an excellent guy.”
And now Clements is a Daytona winner.
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Long: Unforgettable night for Jeremy Clements stretches into morning originally appeared on NBCSports.com