Twenty-one months ago, he was an average Joe, a middle-class, Chevy pickup truck-driving passionate NASCAR fan from Thornburg, Va. But when Daytona opens its gates this weekend, Joe Denette will go through them as the owner of a Camping World Truck Series team.
"It will be the experience of a lifetime, nothing I ever imagined could happen," Denette said.
For Denette, it's not a trip to Fantasy Island. He bought a Mega Millions lottery ticket for the May 1,2009 drawing and matched the six numbers. Winning tickets were also sold in California and Ohio but the jackpot was gigantic. Following a three-way split, Denette decided to take the cash buyout of $47.8 million.
Denette's first thoughts weren't to move into ownership of a NASCAR team, but he did have tickets, won in a radio contest, for the Sprint Cup race at Richmond on the same day he found out he'd become a multimillionaire.
Denette signed the lottery ticket, gave it to his mother for safekeeping and headed to the track.
Lottery officials arranged for Denette to take a pace car ride for several laps around Richmond with Hermie Sadler and it began a friendship. Denette sponsored Sadler for a truck race at Bristol that summer and for several races in 2010. Denette's appetite grew and he began to explore ownership in the series last November.
"When Hermie took me around Richmond, I asked him if he drove anymore and decided to provide him sponsorship to put a truck on the track," Denette said. "We did that several times and I asked him, 'Hey, what would it take to actually do this, be the owner of a truck team?' Hermie researched it and came up with the numbers and pointed me in the right direction."
The early plan was for Denette Motorsports to run a partial schedule this year, but that changed when truck veteran Jason White signed with the team to do the entire season.
"Originally, we were talking about half a season, eight or 10 races," Denette said. "We figured [we'd need] two or three different drivers and we'd pick up sponsorship here and there. Hermie contacted Jason and he brought the Gunbroker.com sponsorship with him. It's a lot more than we had anticipated at the start."
Sadler runs the operation. He made a deal for new cars from Kevin Harvick Inc., and Mark Smith's Pro Motor Engines, the same Chevrolet package in the truck series run by KHI's Ron Hornaday and ThorSport Racing's Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter, and brought in a veteran crew chief in Chad Kendrick, formerly with Germain Racing. The team has 15 full-time employees working out of shop in Huntersville, N.C.
"Hermie is my right hand man," Denette said. "He essentially built the team. He knows everybody in NASCAR and everybody knows him. He's in charge day-to-day. He still works for Speed TV and that right there will put us in the spotlight."
Denette says the startup costs were $3 million. He's doing it first class and has high expectations.
"With the equipment, the team and the driver we're running, we can win races and contend for the championship this year," Denette said. "We're going for the top straight off. We're not in this just to make a name for ourselves, we're going for a victory. Kevin Harvick's equipment and the PME engines have always been good and if you have awesome equipment, there's no reason you can't win.
"You have to have the driver, too, and Jason seems like the driver to take us there."
White, 31, was 10th in the truck series last year and posted a trio of fourth-place finishes. In 104 truck starts, White's top result was third at Las Vegas in 2009. But he's never driven for a team fully funded with top equipment, either. There were years when White drove three different types of trucks for the same team.
"I feel like I'm finally somewhere that I can grow, be competitive and race for wins," White said. "With this team and my sponsor behind me, I feel like we will be very competitive and not only to win races, but contend for the championship."
Denette views the truck team as an investment. "If you're going to start a business, why not do something you like?" he said. "I'd eventually like to own a Cup team and race with the big boys."
Denette isn't worried about becoming one of those lottery winners who ends up broke in five or 10 years.
"I met with a tax attorney to set up investments, annuities and stuff, before I got my check," he said. "I set myself up to where if I making nothing off the races, I have security for life. I have stuff locked in."
There's no guarantee in any business, particularly racing. Richard Childress and Chip Ganassi have made lucrative livings off racing for years, but many other wealthy team owners have come and gone when the expense of racing became overbearing. George Gillett and Bobby Ginn are recent examples. Denette, who became a millionaire overnight after being unemployed for four months, has heard the stories. He's taken a disciplined approach.
Denette will be at Daytona in February with a driver on the track. It's beyond a dream come true, priceless in the feeling it will bring him.
"I used to take every chance I had to go to NASCAR races and I always thought it would be cool just to hang out in the pits," Denette said. "I've done that and now I want to be the guy who actually has more at stake in it than just being a fan."