Rookie Watch: JH Nemechek

Dan Beaver

One driver’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. Bubba Wallace owes his Richard Petty Motorsports ride to an injury sustained by Aric Almirola in 2017. John Hunter Nemechek owes his ride to a recurring medical issue with Matt Tifft that unexpectedly opened up the seat of the No. 36 late last year.

Nemechek was pressed into duty in the Cup series at Texas in the fall and almost cracked the top 20 in his first effort. With his 21st-place finish, he immediately backed up what this team had done for the majority of the season. In 32 starts, Tifft had scored five top-20s; three of these were exactly 20th and the other two came on wild card aero-restricted superspeedways.

But that meant Nemechek gave the team their sixth-best finish of the season in his debut and finished within one lap of the leaders. The following week, he was in the 20s again at Phoenix with a 27th. His 23rd-place result in the season finale at Homestead ranked as the eighth-best effort of the season. With Tifft sidelined to take care of his medical condition in 2020 and David Ragan retiring, it was an easy decision to advance Nemechek to the big leagues.

The son of Joe Nemechek, John Hunter grew up in the sport.

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He has not been overly flashy in a career that includes 150 starts in the Xfinity and Truck series, but he has shown promise with top-10s in 52.7% of his starts. His top-five percentage is less impressive at 26.7%.

Nemechek earned his first Xfinity top-five in his first start with Chip Ganassi at Atlanta in 2018. He qualified third and finished fourth. In his next three attempts, he continued to start among the leaders with top-five qualification efforts; he scored two top-15s with a best of 13th. Frankly, this revealed more about the strength of the team than the driver, but Nemechek asserted himself on occasion.

In his fifth Xfinity start, he scored another top-10. That was part of a 10-race, top-15 streak. His first and only win so far came in his 15th start. In 18 races in 2018, he scored 11 top-10s (61.1%) to prove what he could do in strong equipment. In more moderate equipment, he did not fall off very much. With GMS Racing the following year, he recorded 19 top-10s in 33 starts, which equals 52.8% of his attempts.

The competition level is not quite as strong in the Truck series, but he earned six victories there. All six wins came in the family-owned ride. Included in this list is a controversial finish to the Chevrolet Silverado 250 on the road course in Bowmanville, Ontario. He body slammed fellow 2020 ROTY contender Cole Custer out of his way on the final lap and was credited with the victory. Whether one considers that move dirty or fair, it definitely pointed to a level of aggression.

Notably, Christopher Bell (fifth) and Tyler Reddick (sixth) were also among the top 10 that afternoon.

Nemechek will pick up where the No. 36 left off and gradually improve during the season. In 2019 Tifft scored an average finish of 26.0 with an average start of 28.2. He was running at the end of 28 races and on the lead lap six times. Up against a Joe Gibbs Racing backed entry, Richard Childress Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing, Nemechek is not likely to earn top rookie honors very often, but he will be fantasy relevant on a number of occasions.

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Starts: 51
Wins: 1 (1.9%)
Top-5s: 12 (23.5%)
Top-10s: 30 (58.8%)
Poles: 1 (1.9%)

Starts: 99
Wins: 6 (6.0%)
Top-5s: 28 (28.3%)
Top-10s: 49 (49.5%)
Poles: 2 (2.02%)

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