Despite his performance in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 — better than Cup champions like Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch — Shelmerdine said he had no choice but to skip the next seven races. He did not have the money to purchase a competitive racecar for the other events, so he waited for another restrictor-plate race and will use the car he drove in the Daytona 500 to attempt to qualify today for the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. The race is tomorrow.
"We're working on the sponsor thing," Shelmerdine, 48, said shortly after the Daytona 500. "We've shown what we can do with nothing. It would be nice to get a chance to demonstrate what we can do with something."
The richest race teams have sponsorships worth several million dollars a year. Shelmerdine will probably not get that anytime soon. He is hoping to attract a more modest $2.5 million, which would allow him to at least compete week to week with the big boys. But he has not found a company willing to commit to even that.
"We're still in that hunt, and it's kind of an ongoing struggle, for sure," he said Wednesday in a telephone interview before heading to Talladega. "We've scraped enough resources to do this race. If we can have as much success as we did at Daytona, maybe we can still pull something off."
A native of Media, Pa., Shelmerdine had moved to the Carolinas in 1976 to follow his racing dream. He worked his way up from sweeping floors to crew chief of the most famed race team on the Cup circuit. As the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing, Shelmerdine won four Cup championships from 1986 to 1992.
But Shelmerdine walked away after the 1992 season.
"I think it shocked both Richard and Dale both when I told them what I was doing," Shelmerdine said. "It was just something that had to happen. I had been underneath one of those cars since I was 18 and I had never looked out from underneath the hood. And here I was in my early 30's, and there are other things in life, believe it or not, and some things I wanted to do. To have the success we had at that level, the price is very high. It costs you almost everything else to achieve that. And it's not a price you can afford to pay or be willing to pay for a very long period."
Shelmerdine sold used cars, was a consultant for other race teams and ultimately gravitated to driving racecars. He had limited experience in the Craftsman Truck and Busch Series, but raced in 18 of 36 Cup events in 2004 and earned more than $1 million in race winnings that year. That was when the field of top competitors was smaller and it was still possible to qualify for most races.
But by 2005, the sport had changed. As multicar teams expanded, it became harder for smaller teams to qualify from week to week. Shelmerdine made one Cup race in 2005, driving a total of 11 laps at Pocono in July.
With no money and little hope in 2006, Shelmerdine decided to show up at Daytona anyway. He arrived with a 2004 racecar and no plans beyond trying to qualify for that race.
"It's always been the American way and the Nascar way, too, that anybody with the credentials can come try to make a race any week," Shelmerdine said. "There's still room for the little guy out there if he can manage it.
"Daytona is something that I've been wanting to do for a long time. It's a track I like, it's a track I believe we can run well in. It's the biggest race there is. We almost have means to go race there every year, so we go try."
Shelmerdine was just fast enough to qualify for the field at Daytona, beating out such well-funded teams as the Evernham Valvoline No. 10 Dodge driven by Scott Riggs.
Shelmerdine was not the only one celebrating.
"It's hallelujah for me," Brian France, the chairman and chief executive of Nascar, had said of Shelmerdine before the Daytona 500. "That's exactly what Nascar was built on: somebody with ingenuity, determination and talent against some tall odds."
Shelmerdine had hoped some corporation would see his racecar as the perfect billboard for the biggest race of the year. But the major money never came, and Shelmerdine drove with Apex Electric on his car. Some Earnhardt fans offered to pay for his tires, and Childress provided some sponsorship money, as well.
Shelmerdine stayed at the back of the pack and out of trouble for all 203 laps. It was the first time in his 24 Cup races that Shelmerdine had finished on the lead lap.
"You're always greedy," he said. "I'm sitting there at one of those restarts right at the end of the race, I'm 20 cars away from the trophy and thinking how frustrating it is to not be able to do anything about it, knowing this is as good as it's going to get, and how many shots do I have at it at my age?
"I'm pretty satisfied with how it went. We did things that can't be done. There's a lot to be taken from that as well. It almost is a victory for me, personally."
Another day like that may never come again for Shelmerdine, who arrives at Talladega without the sponsorship he thought he could earn after Daytona.
"To have pretty good success there considering our resources was a pretty big victory," he said. "That's one end of the spectrum. To still be struggling with making ends meet and not being able to continue from that great starting point is frustrating as well. We have sort of both ends of the spectrum going at once. That's the way it's been. It's a tough business, and we'll survive or we won't."