CONCORD – A racer’s life can be frustrating.
Heck, most racers’ lives are frustrating.
Despite the Jeff Gordons and Jimmie Johnsons out there – guys who catch an early break, flex star potential, and go on to racing fortune and fame – the average race car driver spends his career toiling in the sport’s lower levels, fighting to one day be granted a ride with the big boys.
That’s effectively how Daniel Hemric made his way to the Monster Energy Cup Series: by being humbled, by paying dues, by using every bit of the small-town grit he gained while growing up in Kannapolis.
Sure, he was from Dale Earnhardt’s hometown, but they don’t just hand you Cup rides for such coincidences. So Hemric began his journey by dominating Bojangles’ Shootouts at Charlotte Motor Speedway and driving his way through the racing ranks until the big boys could no longer ignore him.
And then, in storybook fashion almost, Hemric had arguably the two biggest racing moments of his life right here at his home track.
Last September, at a press conference in preparation for the inaugural Bank of America ROVAL 400, Hemric fought back tears as he announced that he’d finally gotten his Cup ride, courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.
Then, when he was here this past May, Hemric won the first pole of his career, with so many of his friends and family members watching him in the Monster Energy Open and later the All-Star Race.
This weekend’s trip back to CMS has been different, though.
Instead of having one more thing to surprise his greatest supporters with, Hemric returns with some of saddest news to hit NASCAR over the past few weeks.
After less than one season, his rookie season, on the Cup circuit, RCR is cutting ties with Hemric at the end of this year.
Such a move, of course, is not uncommon in racing. But this happening to Hemric – one of the most affable young drivers in NASCAR – seemed to touch a nerve with the other racers. He’s gotten all kinds of support since RCR made the announcement last week, and he feels confident he’ll be driving in some capacity next year.
But right now, while he deals with the most challenging circumstances of his Cup career heading into today’s Bank of America ROVAL 400, it just feels good to be in the embrace of the racetrack and race fans that helped build him up.
“I’m pumped,” Hemric said Friday after he qualified 20th for Sunday’s race. “Any time you come back home, no matter what the circumstances are, it’s fun to be at your home racetrack. I spent many, many years here racing in front of the crowd. The hometown crowd is always special.
“Obviously, with the situation with my occupation sitting where it is right now, it’s good to come here to a place I feel like we had success last year.”
Hemric’s first and only season driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR wasn’t filled with the highlights many expected. He’s gotten just two top-10 finishes, with his best being fifth at Talladega in April.
Then again, no RCR driver has a Cup win this year. So why move on from the 28-year-old Hemric so soon?
Some reports have team owner Childress interested in one of the sport’s rising young stars, Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick, taking over the No. 8. Which I suppose, again, is nothing new to NASCAR. But you just hate to see this kind of thing happen to a promising, hard-working driver like Hemric, who was born and raised right in the hub of America’s Home for Racing.
But being a racing lifer, was Hemric caught off-guard when he learned of RCR’s decision?
“Not too terribly off-guard,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not the way I saw it going down. But it went down, and the sun came up the next day, and I just went back to work with a little different direction.”
That’s Hemric. Always positive, always taking the high road. Seeing the good in tough days is one of the ways he was able to get to where he is today. It’s also probably why losing his ride affected so many others in his sport.
As news of Hemric’s impending forced free agency spread last week, scores of people began to reach out to him. Some of it was just old-fashioned words of encouragement, but a lot of it was efforts to measure his interest in driving for other teams. His name has been trending in the racing fraternity.
Maybe it won’t be on the Cup level (or maybe it will), but Hemric will have options when he contract officially runs out.
“I feel like that,” Hemric said Friday. “But I think for me, (it’s about) dedicating hopes and focus to this race and finishing this year as strong as I can. But I have a lot of support behind me, kind of helping work all the avenues of any options that are out there.
“I think over the last two weeks, especially the last week, we’ve all seen a lot of doors open and things change and shuffle. When that happens, there’s a snow-ball effect. It affects a lot of different companies as well. I’m just happy to know that my name is in the mix of a lot of those situations. Hopefully, I’ll land somewhere solid on my feet.”
Still, even for a trouper like Hemric, something like this has to be hard, especially this weekend as the circuit comes to his home track, a place with so many great memories, back to his teenager years.
The support he’s gotten, from those inside and outside the sport, has meant everything.
“My wife (Kenzie) is the backbone in the whole situation,” Hemric said. “She understands it and gets it and has been right behind me in this whole process. And even though it’s not the ideal situation with RCR, they’ve been willing to help me anyway they can to try to see me land somewhere. And because of that, the sport’s biggest stars – past champions and Hall of Famers of our sport – have reached out and lent a hand in the navigation process as well.
“That’s all you can ask for is the respect of your peers, and I feel like I’ve got that. I’ve just got to hopefully put it altogether to have a solid day (Sunday).”
The chances of Hemric doing anything special today are slim. Sitting 25th in the points standings, he’s been well out of the playoffs for a while now. But I’m openly cheering for one of NASCAR’s good guys to add at least one more grand memory to his career on his home track.
I’d love to hear Hemric’s name being blared over the Speedway’s P.A. system as he makes surprising moves, simply playing a role in the outcome of one of the sport’s most unique races, the ROVAL.
Because despite all that’s transpired over the past few weeks, both good and bad, Hemric is racer. And that’s what he’s been focused on over the weekend.
“I’ve really just tried to just tune it out,” Hemric said of all the talk of losing his ride. “I’m a guy who doesn’t like talking about it much; I like going and getting it done. That’s what my job is here in the racecar the next eight weeks, as well as off the race track. And hopefully I can do that.
“For me, (focusing) is not very hard. Heck, I’ve said time and time again, this is a situation I’ve been in in the past. I had to build to get where I’m at, and sometimes, you find yourself down and out. You’ve just got to keep your head down and just work and figure it out. It’s not a situation I haven’t been in before.”
But who is he kidding? Hemric knows what’s at stake racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend: pride.
He wants to make Kannapolis proud. He wants to make himself proud while showing that RCR’s decision was a mistake. And probably deep inside, he wants to make this grand, old racetrack proud, too.
“There’s a lot more emotion involved when you’re racing at home,” Hemric said, a pair of dark shades covering his eyes. “You definitely want to run good at your home track. And with all the excitement of the ROVAL, it being the second race here, with the new chicane in the backstretch, there’s that much more anticipation of what’s going into the weekend.
“Me, personally, I’ve got a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” he added. “I want to finish off what I’ve had an opportunity to do a couple times this year. But there’s no better place to do that than here at home.”