- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Brent Sherman is a realist. Heading into Saturday night's Gateway 250, his first goal will be to qualify his McGill Motorsports Chevrolet for the event. After that, he'll see where things go.
One of just 11 drivers to have started all 20 Busch Series races this season, Sherman sits 25th in points, but his team is outside the top 30 in owners' points, meaning he must qualify on time. But the 33-year-old who didn't start racing until completing a six-year stint in the U.S. Air Force is used to challenges.
Simply getting to this stage proves that. Sherman's father gave him a trip to a racing school at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., while he was in the service, and Brent was hooked. Sherman earned a scholarship at the school, ran in the open-wheel ranks for a while, then moved to ARCA full time in 2003.
A fourth-place finish in points in '03 and a second-place finish the following year led to the Busch Series in 2005. He made six Nextel Cup starts with BAM Racing last year, before returning to the Busch Series.
So far, this season is proving to be a struggle, competing against a plethora of teams either owned or supported by Cup organizations.
"For a small team like us, it's a struggle," Sherman said. "We've tried to do some of the coil-binding [setup] things, but when you don't have access to the technology that some of these guys have in their shops, it makes it a little more difficult.
"We keep our head down. We show some signs of improvement and then we have a set back, so it's kind of hard to keep our heads up. ... It hasn't been that great of a year, but there's half a year to go and we're just going to keep our heads down and try to keep improving."
With limited sponsorship from Big Lots, Sherman's team doesn't have the advantages of the big teams. In the end, though, he felt McGill Motorsports was his best situation; he'd rather run every week with a smaller team than compete in a handful of events for a big team with the same amount of backing.
Sherman knows teams are looking for the next teen phenom, meaning the odds of him landing with a powerhouse are stacked against him.
"Everyone in the garage area is talented; it's just finding the right situation and having a team put the time and effort into grooming you into what it takes," he said. "That's just what I haven't had. Now, if you don't go out and win immediately with one of the biggest teams in the garage area, unfortunately you might get thrown to the side.
"To compete at the level that some of these drivers are at on the Cup side, they're unbelievable drivers. ... It's a tough situation whether you got to a big team with a small budget and say, 'I want to run 15 races for you,' or do you take a full season with a smaller team. And that's what I did, I went with a smaller team -- but I'm on the racetrack every week."
Sherman added: "It was a tough call. I still think I made the right decision, although we've definitely had some stumbles along the way. But hopefully we can turn it around."
Crew chief Ricky Pearson knows the season's been a struggle -- even as Sherman praises the team's chemistry. Pearson said he's grateful owner John McGill spends out of his own pocket to support the sponsorship. Otherwise, he says, things would really be difficult.
"It's a struggle," Pearson said. "It's really hard."
With up to 25 Cup drivers in some races, Pearson knows there are weekends when a 26th-place finish may be a realistic goal.
"Can we drive to the front and win a race? No," said Pearson, adding that a top-12 finish would feel like a victory.
Pearson and Sherman are realists, which may be one of the things that helps keep them going week after week.
"We've got a Busch team [and] we've basically got a Busch driver that's learning," Pearson said. "He doesn't have a lot of experience, but he has some. The more we're together, [the better] we'll be, but just driving to the front and winning the race, that will never happen with us."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.