- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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If there was ever a song to fit Kirk Shelmerdine's life, it's "My Way."
As crew chief, he wrenched Dale Earnhardt to his first four Winston Cup championships doing it his way, becoming the youngest crew chief to ever win a race (at the age of 25), and the youngest championship-winning crew chief (at 28).
In fact, Shelmerdine was one of the few people in the NASCAR world who ever had the guts to stand up to The Intimidator. More often than not, the man in black would actually back down and let Shelmerdine call the shots as he saw fit.
"Kirk understands every facet of this sport better than anyone else I know," Earnhardt once said. "His hard work and dedication are what sets him apart from the rest."
It's that same hard work and dedication that have brought Shelmerdine full circle this season to Nextel Cup. After "retiring" as Earnhardt's crew chief after 1992, the Pennsylvania native pursued his dream of going from behind the pit wall to behind the wheel. Since then, he's chased a variety of racing circuits from coast to coast, primarily in the ARCA and more recently the Busch Series.
While he may have taken a circuitous route, Shelmerdine is finally back on the Cup level, racing full-time this season as the driver of the No. 72 Ford. But with the limited budget and minimal sponsorship that he and his team have, Shelmerdine fully knows he has no chance at racing the big boys to the checkered flag. For now, and until things do get better financially, he's just happy to make the show.
"It's the toughest series there is, and even to be at the back of the bus, it's a pretty difficult job to pull off," Shelmerdine said. "We're proud to be here, even though we're really not competitive at this point. There's several others that aren't competitive with the rest of the cars, but we're trying to do what we can about getting to be (competitive). I think if we can last until the second half of the year and maybe see some differences in what we have for equipment and engines and cars, we're looking to build to that point to where we can reduce the contrast between us and them, as it were."
Right now, that contrast is like night and day. With the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500, Shelmerdine has managed to qualify for all of this season's races -- even though his highest start has only been 41st. But his finishes have been in the same ballpark. His best showing has been 39th (at Darlington).
Even worse, he's been black flagged -- told to stop and park his car -- by NASCAR officials twice this season for driving too slow ("Rules are rules. You have to keep up a minimum speed," said Shelmerdine). He's also recorded DNFs in his other four races, three times for handling problems and once for engine failure.
"It's hard not to be competitive," Shelmerdine said. "It kills me to watch the rest of the field drive away every week. It's just kind of a necessary evil with the situation right now, though."
The presence of slower cars on the track has been an issue this year, but it hasn't always been so prominent.
"There's been a lot of talk about maybe they should legislate us out, but it's only been the last few years when there hasn't been slow cars in NASCAR. There's always been, over the history of NASCAR, a lot of range between the front of the field and the back. It's nothing new. It's always been the NASCAR way, where anybody with the credentials and wherewithal, can come and attempt to qualify for a race. The times being what they are, I guess it's a little more unique than it used to be, but that's always been the NASCAR way. It's open to everybody, and that's the American way, too."
Despite the poor performance his team has shown this season, Shelmerdine is an inspiration to underfunded drivers everywhere. He's become the hero to blue collar, wannabe drivers across the U.S. While he may not be competitive, he can still take pride in saying that he's one of only 43 drivers every week who can make the Nextel Cup field. He may not be the best, but he is among them.
"There's a lot we have to do to be here," Shelmerdine said. "It's hard. This is the Cup series and it's the top of the heap. There's nothing easy about being here, even at the back. I was talking to Bob Labonte the other day, he's Bobby's and Terry's dad and has been a racer himself for a long time, and he said most of these young kids racing today, if they had to do it the way we did, they'd be working at Burger King."
Even though he drew some handsome paychecks during his days with Richard Childress Racing in the late '80s and early '90s, Shelmerdine isn't getting rich in his latest foray back into Cup competition. With extremely limited sponsorship, combined with the earnings he makes for qualifying and starting each race, he's barely making it.
"I have kind of a spectrum of what it costs to do each race, with equipment and everything else figured in," Shelmerdine said. "It costs me between $70,000 and $130,000. That's kind of the maximum to minimum. ... With the prize money we get, without sponsorship we're out of business. It's just like the other guys. We don't need near the amount they do, but it's still what makes the wheels turn.
"Everybody said it was something like $10,000 a lap at Bristol (he completed just seven laps there, yet earned $66,390 for finishing 41st), but they fail to see all the other preparation that goes into it to get there. All we're doing is getting our money back at that point. Without sponsorship, we'll lose. It's about a wash, really, so far. We're not in a hole. So far, we've been able to balance and juggle it."
For drivers like Shelmerdine, breaking even is about all he can ask. He isn't buying lavish items or enjoying a rock star's standard of living.
"I'm sure there's some things coming that I'm not seeing right now, but so far we're on about a level keel with finances. We're not owing anybody, we're paying our bills and we're staying afloat, but we're not getting rich by any means. We don't have any airplanes or motor homes, farms or anything like that sitting around."
Yet at the same time, he's happy as a clam, able to call his own shots. What's more, he's good natured about it all. While talking about his operation last week at Texas, he glanced in the direction of the three Cup cars that RCR campaigns, knowing that behind the efforts of Kevin Harvick, Johnny Sauter and Robby Gordon is an organization with several hundred people. It's the same organization that Shelmerdine played a crucial part in building and turning into one of the best teams in Cup racing history.
"They've got so many people over there at RCR, probably more than they know what to do with," he said. "Knowing that end of it as well as I have, and knowing this end of it as well, this is kind of where I started out at, working in the garage and working our way all the way up there, and then here we are back together again. It gives you a lot of perspectives on how things are. We do more with less than they do. From that standpoint, we know we're doing the impossible and here we are doing it, still doing it, and hopefully by the end of the year we'll still be doing it. We may be king of the junk cars, but that's something."
When asked how large his operation is, Shelmerdine paused, looked the interviewer straight in the eye and cracked a smile.
"I've got like three guys full-time," he deadpanned. "Then we have a half-dozen weekend warriors that come to the racetrack with us. A lot of guys come around at night, friends and helpers. It makes for some long days at the shop on weekdays. But when your workers are willing to come at night after they get off their real job and come help, you've got to keep the doors open and let them participate as well. We all have a real big blast. Somebody brings the chicken wings and we make some long hours of it at times."
If he wasn't so serious about his racing, Shelmerdine could practically build a comedy routine talking about his efforts. He knows he's racing second-hand equipment (he's driving Brett Bodine's car from last season), but he makes the best of the situation by adding levity to his comments.
When asked how many engines he has to work with, Shelmerdine smiled again and said, "We've got three. One good one and a couple grenades."
In addition, he has three race-ready cars, one for short tracks, another for intermediate tracks and one for superspeedways. He knows he'll never be able to race Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fender to fender, so he has to drive smart and stay out of both trouble and other drivers' way, lest he see his stable suddenly shrink by 33 percent due to a crash.
He's not too proud to admit most of his equipment is hand-me-down. Childress helps him out, as do other teams, by offering spare parts. If they're willing to offer it, Shelmerdine is willing to take it.
"A lot of the stuff we get is second-hand, just about all of it," he said. "I don't remember buying much new stuff, except for the tires we have to buy. Every nut and bolt is used. We get some stuff (from Richard Childress). Most teams have a department that sells used parts. A lot of them recycle their engine parts after X number of miles. We'll buy 'em and put that many more miles on them and then some, probably.
"The big teams can't afford to let anything even get close to old. A lot of the wear-and-tear stuff, the brake parts and axles and things that wear out, they have so much of it that they don't even know what to do with it all and you can buy it pretty cheap. We pick through it. A lot of it isn't salvageable, but some of it is. Hopefully we know enough about it to be able to put it together into a package that works."
And if anyone can make that package work, it's Shelmerdine, according to Childress.
"Kirk is one of the most intense people I have ever met, and when it comes to taking care of a racecar, there is no one better," Childress said.
Shelmerdine's season thus far has been an odyssey that is close to being unrivaled in Nextel Cup lore. He didn't even decide to attempt the entire season until two weeks before the first green flag dropped at Daytona in mid-February. But when Bodine's car became available and he was able to put together enough financing to break even, the laid-back Shelmerdine threw caution to the wind.
"I had cars and equipment back at the shop, and said what the heck, let's keep going as long as we can, we'll try it," he said. "And so far, it's worked out pretty well. Had we had a little more time for Daytona, I think we could have made (the field)."
With such a small operation, Shelmerdine wears quite a few hats. Not only is he the driver and team owner, he works on the car, drives the transporter from time to time, makes all the team's hotel and airplane reservations, pays the bills and taxes, makes payroll ... and works on the car as much as he can, as well.
"I can't really afford to pay a car chief and engineer, so we try to make do the best we can," he said. "It's kind of like that Bugs Bunny baseball cartoon, where he hits the ball, runs out and fields it, pitches it and everything himself. I feel like that sometimes."
But Shelmerdine wouldn't have it any other way. He knows each race is a crap shoot, but for now, he keeps rolling those bones. He's driving by the seat of his pants and is having a ball, regardless of the outcomes. While he'd love to have a long-term deal in place, for now, Shelmerdine seems to enjoy the challenge of getting to the racetrack as much as racing on it.
"We're on day to day, week to week, month to month here," he said. "I can't really say this is our five-year plan or even a five-week plan. Right now, we're going to Martinsville and Talladega and just going along like that. ...They're all good weekends when we're here and not home. That's the goal, to be in the race."
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, such as crashing a car or losing what limited race-to-race sponsorship he does have, Shelmerdine has every intention of racing the remainder of the season. And while losing and not being competitive admittedly eats at him, he is quick to point out the alternatives.
"What else would you be doing?" he said. "It's tough watching the field drive away every week, but I know what we have to work with and what we're doing and how much we do it with. I'm pretty proud of that. It's hard for other people to realize the odds we're up against at this point, but we hold our heads up knowing that we're doing what can't be done."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
Kirk Shelmerdine won championships as a crew chief with Dale Earnhardt. Now he's behind the wheel.