BRISTOL, Tenn. — Tools are strewn across the ground. Team members are scampering across the tight space in the garage, going from the crippled No. 48 Chevrolet that’s in need of repairs to either the hauler or the toolbox, then back. There is a frantic energy propelling Big Machine Racing as they desperately work to return Parker Kligerman to the track so he can finish the Xfinity Series playoff opener at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The clock is ticking, every passing second is a precious one wasted. This is an all-hands-on-deck emergency where nearly anyone associated with the team in some capacity is doing whatever they can to assist. That includes Artie Haire, Big Machine’s shop foreman, who was attending the race more as a fan and didn’t expect to be pressed into duty.
Just a few hours before the race, Haire was sitting at his campsite outside the track eating crab legs. Then, as the start time got close, he walked inside and positioned himself in a popup chair behind Big Machine’s pit stall to enjoy a leisurely night supporting the team as it competed in the playoffs for the first time. But once Kligerman’s car slowed and began limping to the garage, Haire sprang into action, even though he was wearing shorts.
“I just grabbed my stuff and went to work,” Haire said. “There was no reason for me not to jump in and help.”
The hard work paid off as Kligerman was able to return to the race, and in doing so, gained five additional points due to attrition that sidelined other competitors. He finished 31st, a far worse finish than he and the team had anticipated when the day began.
From the moment they stepped foot inside Bristol last Friday, Kligerman, crew chief Patrick Donahue and the entire Big Machine Racing team felt good about their chances to leave in a solid position to advance out of the first playoff round. No one in their garage cared that they were the 12th and final seed, that they hadn’t won a race all season, that they were a small team competing against heavyweights like Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and JR Motorsports, or that neither Kligerman nor Donahue had playoff experience.
During a late-morning meeting inside the No. 48’s hauler, Kligerman, Donahue, general manager Keith Barnwell and others confidently laid out why they thought the first three races in Round 1 — Bristol, Texas and the Charlotte Roval — played to their strengths. The half-mile Bristol short track is one Kligerman excels at, Texas is a faster intermediate Big Machine won on last year with Cup Series driver Tyler Reddick, and the Roval gives Kligerman an advantage since he’s one of the best in Xfinity on road courses.
Besides winning, which they felt was obtainable, the objective this round was to earn 100 total points over the three races. Kligerman is admittedly heavy into analytics, and he had researched the number of points he expected it would take to move on. If they could hit this number, the likelihood was that Big Machine would achieve their goal of advancing to the second round.
To reach that 100-point tally, the key Kligerman and Donahue stressed was executing to the best of their ability and controlling what they can control. Sure, it’s cliche for a driver and crew chief to emphasize these points, but they’re said so often because it’s true. Especially so in a round featuring three tracks where chaos is common and avoiding trouble and leaving with a respectable result can go a long way toward escaping elimination.
As Kligerman stood inside the hauler inspecting his helmet and cleaning his visor 30 minutes prior to practice, he stopped and glanced at the whiteboard hanging on the wall. He walked over to it, grabbed a blue marker and wrote, “Lock in and execute” in the section labeled “Goals.” He explained that it was “as much a reminder to me as the team.” And later, when Donahue spoke to the pit crew before the race, he too offered up a similar reminder, telling the tire changers that during each pit stop he wanted them to take an extra split second to make sure each tire was sufficiently tightened to avoid any loose wheels, which often occur at Bristol as an extra pit stop under green flag conditions surely means losing multiple laps.
“We do a really good job of managing our race,” Donahue said. “And that’s experience. That’s maturity. That’s confidence. That’s comfort; (Kligerman) knows he’s going to be driving the 48 car next year, and I know I’m not going anywhere. So we’re just going to go race, and if something happens and it’s out of our control, then so be it.”
During the meeting, Donahue also highlighted something he, Kligerman and Barnwell had discussed earlier in the day: Bristol offered Big Machine an opportunity to be on the offensive because they had nothing to lose — this car wouldn’t be raced again the rest of the season, and the short track negated some of the advantages held by bigger teams.
“You have to be aggressive,” Donahue said. “You don’t have a choice.”
Sometimes before a playoff race, especially prior to the opening race, nerves are evident when you look at drivers and crew members. But this No. 48 was a loose bunch. They joked around and shot the bull with one another about a variety of topics, obviously enjoying each other’s company and unfazed about the stakes.
So relaxed was everyone that during some downtime after technical inspection, car chief Ken Roettger started rounding up team members to follow him toward Turn 2. The time had come for hauler driver Jackson White to back up a boast he had made the night before while they were watching the Truck Series race. White said he had the arm strength to throw a baseball from just inside the garage, clear the fencing along the frontstretch and hit a banner in the lower section of the grandstands. Money was on the line.
Without a single warmup, White wound up and fired. Cha-ching. The baseball easily cleared the fence and squarely hit the Coca-Cola banner.
“We’re a young team, so it’s good to have moments like these,” said Roettger, who’s worked in the sport for several decades. “Not much is expected of us, but if we stay loose and focused, we have the potential to surprise folks. Making it out of Round 1 would be huge for us, and we’re capable of that.”
Said Donahue: “Having fun is important.”
Getting out of the first round is going to be a challenge after Kligerman finished 31st at Bristol, dropping him from six points below the cut line to 22. To trim that deficit, he’ll either need someone in a transfer spot to falter combined with him posting consecutive strong finishes, or he’ll need to win at Texas or Charlotte.
Nonetheless, Kligerman and Donahue refuse to be dissuaded that they can still advance, referencing a conversation that took place mid-afternoon in the hauler.
As Kligerman ate a gluten-free meal consisting of white rice, broccoli and baked potatoes and Donahue munched on Pringles and sipped on iced tea, The Athletic asked how they’ve handled down moments this season, like when Sam Mayer carelessly drove into Kligerman during the closing laps of the second-to-last regular season race at Darlington. That cost Kligerman a good finish, and more importantly, it dropped him out of the playoff picture with one race remaining.
Instead of pushing all the blame onto Mayer, as they would’ve been justified to do, Kligerman and Donahue chose to focus on what they could’ve done not to be in that position in the first place. Had they executed better during the race, Kligerman never would’ve been around Mayer, making it a nonissue.
Again, it’s about controlling what you can control. Mistakes, mechanical failures and accidents are going to happen to the very best teams, but it’s how you overcome that adversity that defines whether you’re successful or not.
“When you get in your car and you drive a little bit and you calm down and you look in the mirror, you should be able to say, ‘Well, we shouldn’t have had this, this and this happen,’” Donahue said. “Like when we closed the door (to the hauler after Darlington), I was done with Sam Mayer. It was done and over with and we knew what he needed to do the next week.”
Kligerman, before this season, last raced full-time in NASCAR in 2013. But he never wavered from his commitment to eventually landing another full-time ride, and when Big Machine needed a driver for 2023, he was in position to capitalize — even if he was the team’s fourth choice.
“This was a gift of an unimaginable amount,” Kligerman said. “I’m not even thinking about one day making it to Cup, I just want to win here. I want to make this team the best it can be. And if, come the end of next year (when his contract is up), I get done and it’s like, ‘That’s it, you’re over, you never get to drive again,’ I will feel like I’ve won in a lot of respects.”
While he’s disappointed with how things turned out at Bristol, Kligerman also knows that on that night, there wasn’t much he or the team could’ve done differently. The No. 48 car had speed, with Kligerman exuberantly touting all day how fast his car was — “This is kick-a–, I’m pumped,” he said after qualifying 13th — then backed up that potential by finishing Stage 1 in seventh.
Then bad luck struck in the form of a broken part and all the promise of a special night dissipated. It happens. Some things are beyond your control. And what is within Kligerman’s control is immediately turning his focus to Texas.
“I look at the positive of the speed we had in the first stage,” he said. “That was cool. That was something we keep finding more and more of. We bring that fast of a car to Texas, we’ll be fine.”
(Top photo of Parker Kligerman’s damaged car at Bristol: Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)