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Ultimate go-or-go-home scenario looms for McClure

February 20, 2014, David Caraviello,

Veteran NASCAR Nationwide Series driver looking to qualify for first career Daytona 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- To commemorate the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008, artist Thomas Kinkade unveiled an oil-on-canvas of the starting field, with the double-file line of cars stretching in a long curve from the green flag back into Turn 4. As an aficionado of the man's work, NASCAR driver Eric McClure is quite familiar with the painting -- and the fact that his vehicle would have been included as a part of it, if he had made the race.

But McClure failed to qualify, just as he did in 2005 and 2007. Now the veteran of the Nationwide Series is back, in perhaps the best car he's had here, and in a Speedweeks loaded with personal significance given the personal trials he's faced over the past year. Thursday night's second 150-mile qualifying event will likely present the ultimate go-or-go-home scenario for McClure, who has battled a spate of recent health issues and perhaps faces his last chance to realize a dream by making the Great American Race.

"It's a special thing," said McClure, nephew of former car owner Larry McClure, who twice won the Daytona 500 with Sterling Marlin. "I thought about it one time -- being on stage for introductions, being ignored by all the other competitors and the fans, but just being there with my family. … It's a big deal to everybody in this industry, but it’s a huge deal personally because of what I grew up in. The good news is, you make the race, there's no pressure, because nobody expects anything."

For McClure, all the pressure is the getting there. He's among several drivers facing a potential go-or-go-home situation, among them former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne (due to his part-time schedule), Brian Scott (for Joe Falk and Circle Sport) and former Cup champions Kurt Busch (driving a new car with Stewart-Haas Racing), and Bobby and Terry Labonte. Others needing to race their way in include Landon Cassill and Reed Sorenson, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Whitt, and veterans Michael McDowell, Josh Wise, Joe Nemechek and 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd, trying to become the oldest starter in Daytona 500 history. Dave Blaney will be credited with an attempt, but he has withdrawn from further competition during Speedweeks.

With 48 drivers remaining, five will head home once the field is set following the Budweiser Duels. Some of those on the outside looking in had their quests complicated by crashes in practice Wednesday, when Truex went to a backup and Whitt's primary underwent major repairs. McClure escaped any damage, a small perk for a driver who's battled more than his share of adversity already -- much of it stemming from a 2012 crash at Talladega that left him with a concussion, and then resulted in a kidney ailment that forced him to miss a handful of races last year.

That experience almost led McClure, a father of five daughters and a fixture in the Nationwide Series since 2007, to step away from the sport altogether. He missed four starts in late summer with kidney failure that likely stemmed from the painkillers he took in the aftermath of his Talladega crash.

"Everything later was all related to the accident at Talladega," McClure said. That included a more serious relapse later in the year that left him hospitalized, and forced him to turn his No. 14 car back over to Jeff Green for two of the final three races of the season.

There were times amid all that when McClure was convinced his driving career was finished. But he was competitive in a handful of starts later in the season, remembered how much fun his job could be, and missing those races at the end ate at him.

"I just felt like from a pride standpoint, and owing it to a lot of people, I couldn't let it end that way if there was a possibility," McClure said. "I'm at peace if it ends, and there's a day it's going to end. … But I do feel like, short of an accident, if there's a way to go out on my own terms, I would like to do that."

Hence another season in Nationwide, where he plans to run 28 races. His Daytona 500 entry is being fielded by Front Row Motorsports, which has turned out proven restrictor-plate cars and won with David Ragan at Talladega last year. "If I don't make it, I don't make it," McClure said. "But we have a great opportunity, and we're going to try just to accomplish some things I've always wanted to do, and then we're going to go from there. But I'm at the point now where it's time to start transitioning into something different."

At 35 and with a growing family and a history of health issues, it's the sensible decision. McClure said he entered "a vicious cycle" last season that he couldn't get out of -- one where an illness would trigger the kidney problem, and treatment for the kidneys would trigger something else. He still suffers from the arthritis and other pains he's had since the Talladega crash, but he's only returned to full health in the past few months. Heading to Daytona, McClure said he felt as well as he had in some time.

Still, he can't continue to push it. "At this point, I just don't see how I can continue in this capacity after this season," he said. "… With five little girls at home, with the accident and the illness, I need to be a dad 10 years from now. That becomes a greater priority now. We're going to have fun and be as safe as we can be, and if something happens, we'll address it. But the preparations are being made that the time is winding down."

He's unsure of what will follow when he does step out of the car for good. McClure -- whose best career Nationwide finish is eighth, last February at Daytona -- holds a communications degree from Emory and Henry College, and owns the company that handles marketing for his Hefty/Reynolds sponsorship. He's done some analysis for football games and would seem to embrace the idea of getting into broadcasting. He's also writing a book entitled "I Almost Made It," which will surely detail a career full of challenges that helped shaped McClure into the person he is.

All of that, though, comes later. For now his focus is qualifying for the Daytona 500, in perhaps the last, best chance he'll have to make his sport's biggest race. It's not lost on the McClure family that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Marlin's first Daytona 500 victory in a Morgan-McClure car. There's even a No. 4 sticker inside the No. 35 McClure is driving this week. McClure posted the sixth-quickest qualifying lap among the likely go-or-go-homers on Sunday and was fast again in practice Wednesday night, so at the least he knows his Front Row car has some speed.

"The reality is, I may never have this opportunity again," he said. "I'm going to try to soak up everything, be a part of Speedweeks, enjoy it. No pressure. And if we make the race, it will be huge for them, it will be huge for me, and then we can have fun. I'm just glad to have the opportunity to compete."

And he if makes it into the Daytona 500? And if somehow, circumstances convene and he finds himself in the middle of one of those patented Daytona miracles? Well then, Eric McClure would have the perfect swan song written for him.

"I will tell you this -- if the impossible happens," he said with a smile, "I will not see you in Phoenix."


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