Long: The struggles it takes just to be an underdog in NASCAR

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INDIANAPOLIS – This is the part of racing you don’t see, the part overshadowed by victory lane celebrations, teams so big that their complex rivals a small campus and drivers whose uniforms are speckled with sponsor logos.

As darkness descended upon Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, a team’s car owner and driver went to a nearby home improvement store to buy lights so the crew could keep working on its car outside the Sprint Cup garage.

While crew members from other teams relaxed in hotels after a nearly 12-hour day, this crew was turning an Erector Set into a racecar under a starry sky.

As third-shift employees arrived at their jobs throughout the city, these crew members surpassed their 17th hour of work with two hours to go.

“We could have stayed all night, but we were tired,’’ crew chief Scott Eggleston said.

They went to their hotels and got maybe three hours sleep before returning.

That Timmy Hill will start today’s Brickyard 400 is remarkable considering what his understaffed, overworked crew did in less than 24 hours.

“These guys, they work plenty of hours as it is,’’ said Hill, who starts 42nd. “I can’t thank them enough.’’

Hill’s Premium Motorsports team is a small operation. Some teams brought more engineers to the track this week than there were crew members on Hill’s car.

With limited funds and resources, the team focused on preparing Hill’s primary car at the shop this week. When he crashed in Friday’s final Cup practice, it seemed unlikely Hill would make one of the sport’s highest-paying races. Winnings for every car in last year’s race at Indy was at least $119,950. Last place last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway paid $54,155.

Hill’s accident was too severe to repair the primary car. The contact knocked the front bumper bars back a couple of feet and shifted the motor plate, car chief Kevin Eagle said.

Going to a backup car wasn’t as simple as pulling it out of the hauler and sticking the driver in as it is for bigger organizations. The team was fortunate to even have a backup car. Eggleston said owner Jay Robinson had told the team to take the backup car off the hauler before leaving for Indy. The team didn’t have time to do so because they were too busy prepping the primary car.

Sean Irvan, the team’s engine tuner, marveled at Eagle’s determination in getting the car ready last week, noting Eagle “went in at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning and didn’t go home until the truck loaded Thursday morning.

“He slept a couple of hours in the shop. When we went to lunch, that was the only time he left the shop. It makes you work a little bit harder because you know they’re giving their heart and soul.’’

That backup left in the hauler was truly a skeleton. It had no motor, no transmission, no gears, no fuel cell. Thus, there wasn’t a reason to keep it on the truck because of all the work needed to ready it to race.

“When we rolled it out,’’ Eagle said of the backup car, “all it was just a body and a seat.’’

The crew began their work. Soon crew members from other teams arrived to help. A crew of five became about 20 people working on the car at one point, Eagle said.

“I don’t know who they were,’’ Eggleston said of many of the extra helpers. “I really don’t know where they came from, but they came and helped and came back (Saturday) morning and helped.’’

The team needed that. Scheduled to go first in qualifying because they had the slowest speed in Friday’s practice, the team was late for inspection. Once cleared, Hill jumped into a car he had worked on the night before but had not driven.

It was the slowest car. Hill’s qualifying speed of 166.018 mph was more than 19 mph slower than pole-sitter Carl Edwards’ time.

Hill made the race because his car ranked ahead high enough  in the owner points standings, which is used to determine provisionals.

“It’s an awful lot of work to come here and just have to turn around and leave without getting into the feature race,’’ said James Smith, who drives the team’s hauler and helps the crew.

Instead of leaving Friday night, Smith won’t be traveling until tonight – after his team has raced.