An already crowded and highly touted Sunoco Rookie of the Year class just got another talented entrant.
John Hunter Nemechek joins Front Row Motorsports’ driver lineup for the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series, marking his first full season in the organization’s No. 38 Ford, teamed up with veteran Michael McDowell. But the contest within the larger competition will be hashed out among a capable group of NASCAR Xfinity Series graduates ready for their first Cup Series campaigns.
That microcosm includes last year’s Xfinity “Big 3” of two-time champ Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer, all three of whom racked up multiple wins and advanced to the championship round in 2019. Now enters the rookie candidacy of Nemechek, who is aware of the challenge ahead.
“It’s going to be a tough task,” said Nemechek, who ranked seventh in the final Xfinity standings for GMS Racing last season. “I mean, the Big 3 was definitely very sporty this year in the Xfinity Series, but being able to go to the Cup Series, it’s a whole different ballgame. You never know what can happen. Guys may wreck out; guys may finish well. Who knows if any of us in the rookie class will win, but I definitely feel like it’s going to be who can have the best average finish and being consistent. That’s what it comes down to, being able to maximize your performance and results and just have solid finishes all year.
“That’s my goal. Take what the car will give us and if we can increase it by a few spots, then great, but we’re not going to go out there and try to run fifth and wreck it when we have a 10th-place car. Just something that I’ve had to learn the hard way over the past couple years, but overall the opportunity with Front Row is pretty special to put my name in the rookie class with the Big 3.”
Nemechek received his first taste of NASCAR’s top division last season under unfortunate conditions. Matt Tifft, then a rookie for Front Row, suffered a seizure during Martinsville Speedway’s race weekend in October, an ailment that sidelined him for the rest of the season. NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series champ Matt Crafton was a late-hour substitute for Tifft at Martinsville, but the team opted to give 22-year-old Nemechek an audition for the final three races of the season.
The rookie kept it clean in all three events, notching a best result of 21st place in his series debut at Texas Motor Speedway. But the fill-in duty also gave Nemechek a head start on adapting to Cup Series competition and building chemistry with crew chief Seth Barbour for his rookie voyage.
“Any experience is valuable experience,” Nemechek said. “Being able to run those three races, it’s not the circumstances that I wanted it under with Matt, but at the same time, it gave me an opportunity. It’s been great to be able to have a few solid finishes. … Overall, just being able to learn, communicate and working with a crew chief for three races before kicking off at Daytona (International Speedway). The engineers, car chief, just the whole team in general — it’s all about communication and that’s what it goes back to.”
Adding an extra dose of special feeling to those initial Cup Series starts was the chance to race against his father, Joe, in all three events. The family duo had competed against each other in national-series races before, and in November, the two made history with appearances in all three races of the tripleheader NASCAR weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.
The elder Nemechek, 56, set the all-time record for NASCAR national-series starts in the season-ending weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That trip also provided a father-son moment worth remembering.
“It was cool. We were able to race around each other a little bit. I threw a nasty slide job on him at Homestead, and I didn’t know if he was going to lift or not,” the younger Nemechek said with a laugh. “Luckily he lifted, and I was able to clear him. But we talked about that one after the race — a lot of smiles, we were laughing about it. Any time that you can race against your dad, and the way that my dad has been a mentor, an advisor, a boss and a dad, just being able to be on the same race track with him at the top level of NASCAR is pretty amazing. …
“Not many people in other sports, from baseball to football to soccer or whatever, can say that hey, we played professional soccer or professional baseball with our dad on the same field. Pretty amazing. That’s what it goes back to in NASCAR. It’s a family sport.”