John Hunter Nemechek is putting together a solid rookie campaign with Front Row Motorsports, but his expectations remain unchanged from the start of the season. Not that Nemechek has any.
The 23-year-old’s No. 38 Ford Mustang is running well and continues to show progress, but that doesn’t mean he and crew chief Seth Barbour have changed what they want to achieve. There are weekends where Nemechek feels he performed better and had a faster car than what the finish might show, and that does bring some frustration.
“But, overall, we’re still going into every weekend with no expectations,” said Nemechek. “We want to run the best that we can every single week, and we want to continue to push forward and run every lap. For myself, this year is about learning. It’s about taking in everything that I can, and building that notebook on the experience side.”
Nemechek has two top-10 finishes through 16 races, and his average finish is 19th. Alongside veteran teammate Michael McDowell, who also has two top-10 finishes on his result sheet, Front Row is off to one of the best starts in team history.
Perhaps most impressive where Nemechek is concerned is his standing in the rookie battle. The underdog compared to Tyler Reddick (Richard Childress Racing), Cole Custer (Stewart-Haas Racing), and Christopher Bell (Leavine Family Racing), Nemechek is in the mix for the award. Since the Rookie of the Year award is a straight-up battle of whoever finishes better in the overall point standings, Nemechek (291 points) has been chasing Reddick (344 points) the last few months and has been ahead of both Bell (279 points) and Custer (273 points).
In a season where normalcy has disappeared, the instability has heightened the week-to-week challenges for young drivers like Nemechek. There is no opportunity to continually work on the car throughout the weekend because there is no practice or qualifying. Simulation and data-crunching have never been more critical.
“With the longer schedules, it was something that I was going to have to adjust to,” said Nemechek of moving to the Cup Series. “(That) in this practice session, we need to focus on this, and this one we need to focus on this, and then qualifying Saturday and racing Sunday. So, going back to a one-day show kind of takes you back to almost the Truck Series mindset. I’ve raced in all three series now, and I can say that I’ve raced at least one race without practice or qualifying, so it’s definitely been an adjustment for myself to study data more, to be able to focus on video more, simulation stuff.
“It puts an exclamation mark on how much preparation you actually have to do going into the weekend, but then as a rookie, not knowing exactly what you need in your race cars every single week in every different place that you go and what that track wants from a race car, is something that’s been difficult as well. But I’ve been able to rely on a few other Cup guys, some veterans in this sport to be able to ask questions and get their knowledge.”
A ninth-place finish in the first Darlington race and an eighth-place finish at Talladega have been Nemechek’s highlights, although he’s been a consistent presence in the top 20.
“I feel like most weeks we’ve kind of shown speed right off the bat,” Nemechek said. “We’ve continued to progress. Some weeks we’ve been on the struggle bus side, but, overall, I’m kind of glad that we haven’t had practice. It makes it more fun.
“And the other difficult thing from a rookie perspective is being able to study data and look at film and being in the sim or whatever it may be, but what if we show up at the racetrack and the tire compound is completely different from what we thought about? The pace has slowed down half-a-second or three-tenths, then your mind has to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to drive these things compared to what you were driving in a simulator or what data you had studied. So, there is a lot of different variables that go into it. As a driver, you have to be able to adapt really fast.”