The graduation of last season’s Xfinity Series’ Big 3 to the NASCAR Cup Series this year figured to form another triumvirate for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race for 2020.
After Sunday’s return to racing at Darlington Raceway, better make room for a fourth.
John Hunter Nemechek bolstered his candidacy Sunday with a career-best ninth-place result, his first top-10 finish in eight career Cup Series starts. It was one of two impressive performances by first-year drivers in The Real Heroes 400, with Tyler Reddick charging to the best finish by a rookie this season — seventh — in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
Reddick was one-third of the 2019 season’s three-pronged attack on the Xfinity Series win column, claiming the championship ahead of fellow Big 3 members Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. All three moved to NASCAR’s top rung full-time this season, highlighting a rookie class that also includes Nemechek, Brennan Poole and Quin Houff.
Nemechek’s result provided his own highlight on a gritty track that typically rewards a veteran’s poise. The effort marked the first top 10 for Front Row Motorsports since 2016 on a non-superspeedway (Daytona or Talladega), when Chris Buescher drove a Bob Jenkins-owned car to fifth place in the Bristol Night Race.
“A solid day, very excited, an awesome day coming home P9,” said the 22-year-old Nemechek, a seven-time winner in other NASCAR national series. “An amazing job by my team and the pit crew. Everybody executed all day with no mistakes. We made the right adjustments. Seth (Barbour, crew chief) and the engineers did a great job. The pit crew was flawless and I couldn‘t have asked for a better day. It was great to get kicked off on the right foot for these races coming up. Hopefully, we can continue to build on this and create some momentum and continue to get our cars faster each and every week.”
As for the Big 3 hubbub, Nemechek acknowledged hearing the preseason chatter.
“I definitely feel like all the talk was about the Big 3. It was like the Big 3 and me, like what about me over here?” Nemechek said in a Monday conference call. “So, definitely trying to make a name for myself as far as part of the rookie class, and I feel like we‘ve been able to do some of that and we just have to continue to try to do that, but the Big 3 definitely aren‘t going away. They‘re hard to compete with and they‘re all really good. To be able to continue to compete with them and to race them week in, week out with the circumstances that we have at Front Row, it definitely makes myself feel good and makes our team feel good. I hope to continue to build momentum through the runs that we‘ve had.”
Reddick’s day included a rally from a Lap 156 pit-road penalty for an uncontrolled tire, but he quickly regained his status inside the top 10. The two-time Xfinity champ was able to stay there, building on the progress he showed in the Cup Series’ previous two races (Auto Club, Phoenix).
Reddick has been the top-finishing rookie in three of the five races so far this season.
“Our first day back in the No. 8 Caterpillar Chevrolet was a little rough around the edges at times,” Reddick said, “but starting out in the 29th spot and racing our way into the top five in about the first 125 laps was just an outstanding kickoff to our race. It felt like we were bouncing right back from our good momentum that we had at Phoenix Raceway before this break.”