John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric recently revealed their 2021 plans, and in doing so, inadvertently started a conversation about how some view NASCAR’s lower divisions.
Both drivers have full-time rides, with Nemechek going back to the Camping World Truck Series and Daniel Hemric staying in the Xfinity Series. They landed with very successful teams – Nemechek at Kyle Busch Motorsports and Hemric at Joe Gibbs Racing. Expectations for both are to be in playoff contention and, given the equipment they’ll be sitting in, win multiple races.
And yet, the two are perceived as having taken a step back in their careers. Part of that comes from the fact that both are former NASCAR Cup Series drivers. Nemechek just completed his rookie season with Front Row Motorsports, and he decided to leave the team. Hemric, meanwhile, lost his ride at Richard Childress Racing after his rookie season in 2019, and spent ‘20 competing on a part-time basis in the Xfinity Series.
The reactions on social media and satellite radio say a lot about how many think about competing in the Truck and Xfinity Series. Rides there are commonly viewed as being worth less than a NASCAR Cup Series opportunity; as little more than stepping stones on the way to accomplishing the ultimate goal of becoming a Cup Series driver.
NASCAR needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for this because of its past insistence on pushing the ladder system concept. Back in the day, a driver would go through the ABC’s of the ARCA Series, Busch (now the Xfinity) Series, and then into Cup. Through it all, the media pushed the narrative to help shape the view that the Truck Series and Xfinity Series is where a driver goes to learn.
As a result, we have made the two series less than. Going from Cup to Trucks to Xfinity is labeled ‘dropping down’ or ‘stepping back,’ meaning a driver has failed as a Cup Series driver. Or that they need to work on themselves and bring their stock back up.
It’s a bit unfair. Nemechek and Hemric are doing what is best for both their personal and professional lives.
There is nothing wrong with competing in the Truck or Xfinity Series. As the second branch of the conversation comes in, both series would benefit from having more experienced drivers in the starting lineup. Young, talented kids need a place to learn and grow if they seek to become a Cup Series driver one day, but NASCAR needs more Johnny Sauter and Matt Crafton types: drivers who are OK making a successful career for themselves away from the Cup Series.
Justin Allgaier is doing it in the Xfinity Series. He once went from the Xfinity Series, where he ran for Roger Penske, to Cup. He struggled mightily for two seasons with Harry Scott, and is experiencing a career resurgence now with JR Motorsports. Michael Annett is another example, and coincidently within the same JRM program.
The series needs drivers who can teach the younger drivers how to race. How to make a pass without body-slamming or running someone over, to respect the equipment others prepare.
Not every driver has to go to the Cup Series, and not every driver is cut out to be a Cup Series driver. Ron Hornaday Jr., Todd Bodine, Jack Sprague, and Mike Skinner, to name a few, became household names not through competing in the Cup Series, but in Trucks.
Long before the concept of a ladder system came into play, Bodine considered the Truck Series a place for drivers to go when there were no Cup opportunities. Or, when their Cup careers were over, a place to still be able to race and have fun. In Bodine’s opinion, the series having recognizable names helped it grow in popularity.
Times sure have changed. Today, the Xfinity Series proclaims itself to be the series where names are made. The drivers are getting younger and younger, and they don’t stick around for too long.
It has become rare to see the champion defend his title. After one year, drivers move onto the next series, like Christopher Bell, William Byron, Chase Elliott, and NASCAR continues to impose restrictions on drivers competing in more than one series.
Also, consider that as soon as a driver comes along who seems to have any semblance of talent and hype, they automatically get put into the category of ‘future Cup Series driver.’ The conversation usually is centered on when they’ll move up. We’ve become a society of quickly pushing everyone to the premier level, and ruining the good things we have in the Truck and Xfinity Series.
Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric dominated the Xfinity Series in 2020. At the beginning of the year, Briscoe admitted he felt he needed to win about eight races to show he deserved a ride and eventual Cup Series promotion. Briscoe provided a storyline that took on a life of its own throughout the year. Was he ever mentioned during an Xfinity Series broadcast without accompanying speculation about his future?
It became quite excessive, and the same happened with Cindric. For every win and success Cindric had, folks tried to slot him into a ride at Team Penske or played musical chairs with the three Penske cars and the Wood Brothers Racing alliance car to see how he could fit in.
Ultimately, both ended up with Cup rides. Briscoe will be there next season, and Cindric joins the fold in ’22. It is also worth noting that Cindric will have run four full seasons in the Xfinity Series before moving up, another rare occurrence. Most drivers on the fast track usually run one season, maybe two, before signing a Cup Series deal.
Perhaps Nemechek and Hemric were brought up too fast to begin with, which is part of the reason they are in this position. There is also every chance that one day they might go back to the Cup Series. But for now, there is still nothing wrong with going from one series to another, particularly from the top level to somewhere where they can win races and be successful.
Trophies still look good on the mantel regardless of the series they came from, and the hangover feels all the same. NASCAR doesn’t begin and end with Cup, so we need to change our perception of the sport’s two other series.