Two laps were left in February’s Daytona 500, and the adrenaline was flowing through Chris Clayton.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was clinging to a car length’s lead with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski on his tail. He was seconds away from a victory in NASCAR’s Super Bowl of races.
Clayton, a 2006 Downey High School graduate, discovered a thing or two about pressure during his six tours in Afghanistan. Yet, even he was beginning to crack under the Daytona night, barely able to contain his excitement from his vantage point – trackside as part of Earnhardt Jr.’s pit crew.
“I hadn’t had that much adrenaline flow, and that heart-pounding, just like, hold-your-breath-moment, since one of my last deployments,” Clayton said. “To see him coming with the white flag, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could be it. I could be part of the team that wins.’ ”
Seconds after a crash behind him, Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line a winner, tipping off scores of high fives and hugs among his pit crew members.
“Everyone lost it,” Clayton said. “Everyone started jumping off the wall. … It was just an unbelievable experience.”
The same could be said for Clayton’s journey to becoming a member of prestigious Hendrick Motorsports, one of the world’s premier auto racing teams that boasts NASCAR Sprint Cup cars driven by Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.
“To me, this is truly a dream come true,” Clayton, 27, said last month from his Charlotte, N.C., home he shares with his wife, high school sweetheart Jacquelyn.
The dream of becoming a member of a NASCAR pit crew was a culmination of family experiences and decisions made by Clayton, all stitched in concert, much like a well-performed pit stop.
Just not in 12 seconds.
It was born from an early love of racing, fostered by dad, Thomas, who would take the family to Stockton 99 Speedway to root for fan favorite Ken Boyd. It also could be tied to Clayton’s few moments in the seat of an Outlaw race car at Merced Speedway, where the smell, sounds and feel revved his motor, even as an 8-year-old.
That Clayton would one day be working to support the lead pit crew members for Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona, or changing tires during Nationwide and Camping World Truck races, stemmed also from his love of aviation and a calling to follow the military path of his grandfather, Marvin Fred Clayton.
Clayton joined the Army in 2007, and eventually joined the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which provided rotary wing helicopter support for elite forces like Delta Force and Rangers. He served as a mechanic for his first three tours before moving up to become a Chinook crew chief, flying missions offering aid to pilots and working as a door gunner in overseas missions.
“I loved flying and that camaraderie of having your buddy’s back and being a team, always trying to take care of each other no matter what the circumstance was,” he said.
While that training would eventually pay big dividends in the pits, it was a chance meeting while on a marriage retreat with Jacquelyn about a mile from Hendrick headquarters in Concord, N.C., that opened the door to his NASCAR dream.
“That was the one place I always wanted to visit,” Clayton said. “Now that I was a mile away, why wouldn’t I stop in?”
When he arrived at Hendrick headquarters in 2012, he went straight to the pit area, where practice was open to the public. Although practice was done for the day, Clayton saw a man checking a jack.
Now, any race fan could easily pick Gordon, Johnson or Earnhardt Jr. out of a crowd. But how about Johnson/Earnhardt Jr. pit crew coach Greg Morin?
“I was thinking, ‘I need to talk to this guy.’ I walked up to him and said, ‘You’re Greg Morin, correct?’ He said, ‘Well … yes I am.’ I said, ‘Hi, I’m Chris Clayton and I have about a year left in the military. I want to know what I need to do to be on your pit crew.’ ”
Morin told Clayton to stay in shape, work hard and pretty much, as Clayton said, “the generic answers because I know he gets asked this so many times.”
But as the discussion continued, and Clayton filled him in on his interests and desires, Morin handed Clayton his business card and urged him to keep in contact.
“It was a gut feeling. It was the look in his eyes,” Morin told ESPN.com’s Marty Smith last fall. “It was a look that said, ‘I WILL do this.’
“And it wouldn’t have mattered if we said no. Somebody would’ve said yes.”
Clayton also told Morin he’d fly an American flag for him during a mission and present him with that flag upon return.
“That was just a way for me to show him my gratitude,” he said.
It certainly left an impression on Morin.
“I had a lot of family members serve,” Morin, who eventually received that flag from Clayton, told ESPN.com’s Smith. “We buried my grandfather at Arlington Cemetery. … When he brought that flag in … I’ve never been more humbled.”
After his meeting with Morin, Clayton honed his skills on an old race car he bought off Craigslist. He also had to decide if he would re-enlist or steer his life toward a new course … his dream job.
He said he and Jacquelyn prayed over the decision and he found himself in February 2013 trying out for Hendrick. By the end of the day, he was told that once he completed his last mission, return to Concord, where a job would be waiting in May.
Since then, he’s been a quick study.
The goal of most pit crew members is working “over the wall” during a pit stop. Those are the people you see changing tires, adding fuel and jacking up the car. The members “behind the wall” are providing support, whether it’s rolling tires up, filling gas cans, preparing lug nuts or myriad other duties.
As a member of the development team, Clayton works behind the wall for Sprint Cup races and over the wall on all of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series races. Clayton compares himself to a third- or fourth-stringer on a football team or a member of a major-league baseball team’s farm system.
From behind the wall, Clayton might be rolling a tire to a tire changer or be on the receiving end of one coming over the wall. If over the wall as a tire changer, he’s working to get “lugnuts off” in 1.1 seconds or faster.
“This sport is a sport of milliseconds. If you miss one lugnut, that is .3 seconds you have just tacked on to your pit stop,” said Clayton, who is training both as a rear and front tire changer. “Hitting five lugnuts may sound easy in theory, but to do it and do it quickly is a difficult thing to accomplish.”
And everything that happens during the week and on race day impacts where you stand on the crew. Whether you’re a lead tire changer or on support, everyone is fighting for one of the few, precious spots over the wall on Sprint Cup day.
If anyone has the acumen to make it, it’s Clayton, says Andy Papathanassiou, director of human performance for Hendrick Motorsports. Papathanassiou equates his role as that of an athletic director of a university, overseeing Hendrick’s coaches, trainers, rehab therapists … you name it.
Creating a six-man pit crew is like a jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces have to fit and complement each other. Like a home sound system, it’s only as good as its weakest link. Even a crew member’s mental makeup might determine where he might land, Papathanassiou said.
The calm are best suited to change a front tire because they have the ability to wait for the car to arrive at just the right spot. The antsy are best served on the rear tires because they’re more at home on the move.
It’s a science, really.
Of course, Clayton’s military experience also makes him a perfect fit.
“Their ability to work in a team environment, to handle responsibility, to be self-directed, to stick to the job until it gets done … young men who come out of the military come to us miles ahead of everyone else,” Papathanassiou said.
Of course, as much as military training helps in the pits, auto racing for Clayton helped bide his time during his six deployments.
While in Afghanistan, he’d rally his fellow troops, and do whatever he could to help them and himself pass time. NASCAR was a big part of that.
“For some people it’s football, for some people it’s baseball,” he said. “For me it was racing. I knew if I could get to Talladega, I would be coming home a week after.”
In Clayton, Papathanassiou sees someone who is proactive, willing to do anything while understanding the importance of teamwork.
“We need people who want to roll up their sleeves and be part of the process,” he said. “Chris has that exact attitude we want. He’s the guy who wants to jump in, help out and stay until the job gets done.”
Clayton didn’t mind staying late after Earnhardt Jr.’s thrilling victory at Daytona.
Following the race, Earnhardt Jr. returned to the pits and thanked all of his crew. Clayton said he tries not to be starstruck. Still, he was appreciative of the bear hug and albeit brief, but kind words of thanks, from Earnhardt Jr., whom to that point he had never spoken with.
Clayton also ended up pictured post-race behind a gleaming Earnhardt Jr., celebrating with teammate Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick, in an Associated Press photo that appeared on the cover of The Bee and likely in many newspapers and websites worldwide.
“That was luck of the draw,” Clayton said, laughing.
Later that night, Clayton and crew members helped out with the inspection, walked around the track to soak it all in and didn’t leave until about 5 a.m. A few hours later, they were back for the Champions Breakfast to hear Earnhardt Jr. describe the race. Clayton also received a memorable handshake from Hendrick.
“I can’t believe it,” Clayton said. “A year ago, this was a dream with a little bit of light that could possibly happen. Two years ago, it was an idea I had in my head. Before that, I never thought honestly that it was possible …
“I feel so blessed I’m able to live out my dream.”