Brennan Poole is reminded of one of the most stressful times of his career every night.
Sitting on a TV stand in his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city block.
There’s more than five buildings. A barber shop, a pet store and a few houses.
The city – built by Poole in December 2014 – is made of Lego blocks.
What led a 23-year-old driver to construct such a feat?
Years earlier, Poole began racing at a quarter midget track in Rio Linda, California — the same facility four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon got his start. But after 217 wins and nine championships through six series, Poole was trying to distract himself from the possible end of his career because of lack of sponsorship.
“It was just something to keep my mind off of it,” Poole tells NBC Sports in a phone interview. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything. I would just sit there and build. I built like a city in a month.”
THE PHONE CALL
Two months before he built his city block, Poole won what he thought was likely his last professional race ever, an ARCA event at Kentucky Speedway.
Poole was two years removed from a full season in ARCA driving for Bill Venturini that saw Poole win at Pocono Raceway and Elko Speedway. But then Poole’s sponsorship money evaporated.
The 2013 and 2014 seasons were filled with Poole working for Richard Childress Racing filming Dartfish video – a program teams use that allows them to overlay video of one driver’s lap on top of another’s.
He also served as spotter for ARCA and Camping World Truck teams, while occasionally driving for Venturini’s team.
“I believed something would happen,” Poole says. “I was still trying to find some funding. I got probably a million nos over those two years and kept working hard at it.”
Though he managed two ARCA wins in 2013 in substitution of John Wes Townley, nothing materialized. Poole made seven starts in 2014 for Venturini while continuing his Dartfish and spotting jobs.
Then came that last ARCA race at Kentucky.
“It had been two years of trying to find funding and trying to get a ride and I felt like I was winning races and nothing was happening,” Poole says. “I was kind of to the point where I was ‘Hey, if this doesn’t happen, I’m going to have to do something else.’ ”
What would that be? Poole had graduated from high school a year early and moved to Charlotte at age 17 to pursue his stock-car aspirations, living on the couch of Late Model stock driver Jamie Yelton until he was 18.
By age 23, Poole owned a house and was living off a credit card.
“I can’t stay in North Carolina,” thought Poole. “I’m going to have to go home. Go to school. I don’t know. I’m going to have to do something.”
A month after that last ARCA race, a phone call put Poole in a state of shock.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
The unexpected call had been from HScott Motorsports about possibly driving the No. 42 Chevrolet, which was co-owned by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Soon after, the anxiety set in that would result in Poole’s Lego city.
“I didn’t think anything was going to pan out because I didn’t have any money and I wasn’t sure what the team needed as far as sponsorship or what was going to happen or if they had anything ready,” Poole says. “None of that was covered in the phone call.”
Around New Year’s 2015, Pool found out the dream wasn’t over.
“It was kind of a huge relief when I found out around New Years that it was going to happen,” says Poole, who keeps the Lego City intact to remember what it felt like to know he would race again. “I can look at it every night and think of that moment.”
The beginning of the 2015 season was surreal for Poole, who admits he doesn’t really remember his first few starts.
“It kind of messed me up mentally because it was hard to be focused because I couldn’t believe I was there,” Poole says. “From absolutely nothing, to being with this great team with a great sponsor … I was just in shock.”
Poole’s best results in his 17 starts were top 10s at Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Halfway through the season he already knew he’d be competing full-time in 2016.
When he showed up at Daytona this February, Poole looked like a new man. After an awkward episode the previous season involving pushing his shoulder-length hair out of his eyes through an open helmet visor, Brennan cut his dark locks.
He also had a new number on his car, the No. 48, selected by Chip Ganassi.
“I’ve always looked up to Jimmie Johnson as a kid,” Poole says. “I’ve been saying in the shop among my team, we’ve been saying ‘rise to the occasion,’ because if you put that number on the car, you’ve got some expectations to live up to, right?”
Brennan Poole is reminded about the “million nos” he received every race weekend.
He sees some of those companies sponsoring other teams.
“I was on the right path,” Poole says. “It was either that or I gave them the idea, right?”
Representatives of some of those companies were among those who lit up Poole’s phone after last month’s Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The text messages arrived after Poole was the first to take the checkered flag, appearing to have won his first NASCAR race in his 26th series start.
“It was ‘Awesome job, I can’t believe you won!'” Poole says. “Then five minutes later, ‘Sorry.’ ”
Poole didn’t see those messages immediately. He was sitting near the start-finish line, along with Elliott Sadler, waiting to find out who won.
When Joey Logano was turned into the frontstretch wall after contact with Sadler, the track’s caution lights illuminated. NASCAR had to determine the running order when the caution flag waved. For five minutes, Poole and Sadler sat in their cars waiting.
“The longer it took,” he says, “the more I thought, ‘Man, this might be a lot closer than we all thought.’ ”
The decision came. Sadler emerged from his car, striking a victory pose atop his car.
Poole drove away. He was scored third.
Poole, two years removed from almost leaving North Carolina and the sport behind, has no hard feelings about that finish.
“It’s just kind of a bummer because you’re so close,” Poole says. “But a rule is a rule. I’m glad that the right winner took the trophy home. It just wouldn’t feel right if I took it home and really wasn’t the winner.”
But he still can be. After “a million nos,” Brennan Poole continues to dream.