At the ripe old age of 28, Eric McClure found himself at a crossroads this past offseason. With opportunities seemingly limited, and his first child on the way, the fledgling driver was preparing himself for life without racing.
Securing sponsorship from Hefty changed all that at the last minute, but that didn't necessarily mean things would come easy for the native of Chilhowie, Va. Far from the potent sponsorships pulled down by Nextel Cup drivers dipping into the Busch Series, McClure couldn't shop himself to a high-dollar team.
Instead, he's with Johnny Davis Motorsports, a hardworking independent team that needed a driver once Kertus Davis signed to run a partial schedule for Kevin Harvick Inc. this year.
The good news for McClure? He's still racing.
The downside? It remains a constant struggle.
But wife Miranda gave birth to a healthy daughter in March and McClure's still following his dream, so he knows things could be a whole lot worse.
Now he can only hope things somehow turn around on the track. In eight starts this year, McClure has been running at the finish in seven. But his best finish was 24th at Bristol, followed by 26th-place runs at Las Vegas and Nashville.
Heading to Talladega, McClure is 31st in points, with the team 37th in owners' points.
"It's been really disappointing for us. We knew, being a single-car team, it would be tough, but we didn't expect we'd struggle like we have," McClure said. "I think we've made some progress over the last few weeks, but we're still a long way from where we want to be and where we feel we should be."
With only a handful of employees, there's only so much the team can do to its Chevrolets to compete against the likes of Roush Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the other Cup-backed Busch teams.
That makes it tough for McClure, whose family has been in racing for years. His father is part of Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which fields Ward Burton's Cup effort. These days, Morgan-McClure has its hands full at the Cup level as a single-car team, but no more so than what McClure is facing in the Busch Series.
With more than 20 Cup regulars often in the field, opportunity is limited from the start. Then there are the younger drivers being brought along by Cup teams, drivers with big money behind them.
So McClure presses on.
"We want to get a lot better and we feel we can make more steps, but we just need to continue to make races and try to finish as high as we can and see what happens," he said.
McClure has made the field for one Cup race each of the three previous seasons but has never made more than eight Busch starts in a year, and that was in 2005. The limited opportunities have hindered his development and had him contemplating the next phase of his life during the offseason.
"To have no experience, I thought we ran pretty well," said McClure, who finished on the lead lap in 26th at Talladega in his '04 Cup debut. "[But] over the last four years, whether it be situations or whatnot, we've just never progressed any further. And in some cases, we've never been able to match that. It's kind of like starting all over.
"You can only chase the dream so long, and we felt that God was going to shut the door. And that was fine."
-- Eric McClure
"There are only so many rides to go around. So I guess we're thankful to be here. We're at the bottom now, but we'll work our way up."
McClure started 27th and finished 31st at Talladega this past fall, then wondered whether it was his last NASCAR start.
"We had not put the sponsorship deal together, and I'd made my mind up that I was done, that it was time to go take care of my family," he said. "You can only chase the dream so long, and we felt that God was going to shut the door. And that was fine.
"Then, all of a sudden, we had a sponsor and it was like, 'Wow, now we've got to scramble and find a team.' On paper, it might not be the most ideal situation, but it is what it is and we could be sitting at home. We'll make the best of it; we'll grow together and see what happens next season."
David Ragan can relate to what McClure's going through. The son of former Cup driver Ken Ragan, David ran for an independent Busch team at one point before landing at Roush Racing.
Ragan knows the Cup drivers make it tough for teams such as Johnny Davis Motorsports but realizes the situation can be beneficial. It's a lesson McClure is learning the hard way.
"Something my father always preached growing up [was]: We go where the competition is, and that's the only way you get better," Ragan said, talking of the plight of independent teams in general. "And I do understand that a lot of it is money and financial backing that the smaller teams don't have what we do, but as I was growing up racing Legends cars and everything else, we would go where the big dogs were, and that's the only way you can get better.
"The guys like Team Rensi and Brewco, some of those stand-alone Busch teams, I think they do an excellent job for the resources they have. But at the same time, if you really want to get better, you want to be here racing the best."
That's what McClure is doing these days. He still helps out around the office at Morgan-McClure and helps with the team's Web site. Most of the time, though, he's trying to build his own career.
"It's a lot of fun, and we're learning a lot," McClure said. "And I'm a lot better driver than it shows, I feel like. We're excited. We've got a long-term relationship with the sponsorship, so we'll just go from there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.