Reaching NASCAR’s top series, the Cup Series, full time is the goal for any stock car driver starting the day they begin their career. The path to this level is different for every driver, but the end goal is all the same. Some make it there in just a few years like Harrison Burton. Some are stuck in Xfinity for a while like Justin Allgaier. Whatever path is taken, every driver hopes to make it to Cup – and stay there.
John Hunter Nemecheck had this same goal, beginning when he was just five years old. Son of all-time starts leader Joe Nemecheck, John was born into a racing family. His racing career began with go-karts, quarter midgets, and dirt bikes. He moved up to stock cars at the age of 13, three whole years before he could even be licensed to drive a car. Just two years later he moved up to late model competition, making his first start from the pole in an ASA Midwest Tour event that June. Later that year he competed in the Snowball Derby, finishing tenth. That was no indicator of how the rest of his season went, however, as he won 15 of 18 races he had run that year.
His NASCAR career would officially begin the next year – 2013 – as he ran a few races in the K&N Pro Series East. Later that same year, he made his debut in the Camping World Truck Series in the No. 22 Toyota, driving for SWM-NEMCO Racing. This team was owned and operated by his father, Joe. He made two starts that season, and his best finish was a mere 16th place. That offseason, it was announced that he would run ten more races in the 2014 season. This season looked a lot brighter for Nemecheck who took home five top-ten finishes.
John Hunter’s first win came exactly 16 years after his father’s first Cup win – September 19, 2015. He took the checkered flag at Chicagoland after pole-sitter Kyle Larson had run out of fuel on the final laps. Nemecheck enjoyed some consistency that season, finishing in the top-15 fourteen weeks in a row. This included five top-five finishes in the last seven races of the season. He would later win that year’s Most Popular Driver award for the truck series.
He again saw great consistency in the following years, winning twice in 2016 and 2017. He just barely missed the Championship Four in 2017 after he finished second in the playoff race at Phoenix. In 2018, he was given the opportunity to split his time between trucks and the Xfinity Series. He took that opportunity, driving the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing part-time in Xfinity, and the No. 8 for his father’s NEMCO Motorsports part-time in trucks. He continued to find success in trucks, winning at Martinsville that year. He also had a successful Xfinity debut, finishing fourth at Atlanta.
The rest of his season in trucks would provide mixed results, finishing in the top-ten six weeks in a row, then finding himself in the bottom twenty for the next four races. It seemed that he was focusing all of his efforts on the Xfinity Series because he finished outside of the top-15 in only two out of his 18 starts. His first win came on October 20th at Kansas Speedway, and he finished out the season with three more top-tens.
For the 2019 season, he was offered a full-time Xfinity ride with GMS Racing in the No. 23 Chevy. While he was unable to bring home a win that season, he still impressed. He finished in the top-fifteen in all but seven races in his 33-race schedule. This put him in 7th place for points, and garnered the attention of Front Row Motorsports who signed him on to drive the No. 36 for the final three races of the Cup Series season after driver Matt Tifft had to withdraw due to medical issues. He did not crack the top-20 in any of his finishes, but he had already impressed FRM enough – they signed him on to drive the No. 38 full time in 2020.
Sometimes the transition from Xfinity to Cup is a breeze. However, when you’re stripped from your Xfinity ride to immediately go full-time in Cup, it’s not necessarily a “transition”. Nemecheck had a hard time getting used to the equipment he was given at FRM, and struggled in his rookie season. He brought home only three top-tens, and finished 27th in points. How had he enjoyed so much success in trucks and Xfinity, but was now struggling so badly in Cup? He simply felt he had been rushed and needed better equipment than what he was being given. While he enjoyed every minute of living out his dream in the Cup Series, he knew what he had to do.
John Hunter parted ways with Front Row Motorsports – and his Cup career – on November 16, 2020. In the following week, he signed a full-time contract with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series. He was starting over. With just one regular season race left in the season, it is abundantly clear that he made the right decision. John Hunter has won five races this year and has clinched the regular season championship. He knew that he was under-prepared and wanted to properly build his way back up to Cup.
Since he has been so successful in trucks this year, he has captured the attention of team owner Sam Hunt who has signed him on for a part-time ride in the Xfinity Series. He has only raced once this year which resulted in a 32nd place finish, but with everything he has taught himself since the beginning of the year – and the beginning of his career – it is clear that he is an extremely talented driver who will enjoy success in all three series for years to come.
While “demoting himself” is not something Nemecheck necessarily wanted to do, it was clearly the right thing. He has proven that being rushed through development is not a good situation, regardless of how fast you make it to the top level. We are frequently seeing guys who found great success running part time in Xfinity being rushed up to the Cup Series because of marketing and sponsorships. However, those guys have little to no experience in Cup cars, and run middle of the pack or back of the field every week. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what those sponsorships want? While perhaps more people are watching the Cup series, no one is going to see your ads on a car that is running 35th every week. Meanwhile, those who watch Xfinity were seeing them in the top five every week last year.
But not everything in racing is about sponsorships and money. A huge part of it is growth and self-improvement. Running at the back of the field week after week can take a toll on a driver’s mental health. While they’re expected to put on their tough guy face and not let anything bother them, every week without a win feels like a punch in the gut. A failure. That’s why what John Hunter is doing is a wonderful thing. He’s looking out for himself, and putting himself where he needs to be to thrive. And he’s doing just that; having fun and winning races.
Featured Photo from Chase Stevens