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John Hunter Nemechek on His Unconventional Path to the Top

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By Jared Turner

One of the top NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers this season, John Hunter Nemechek has followed an unconventional path to where he is today.

Unlike many young drivers who make it to the Camping World Truck Series from NASCAR’s lower levels and work their way up to the Xfinity Series and ultimately land a ride in the NASCAR Cup Series, 26-year-old Nemechek has gone from the bottom to the top and back down again. 

Now, he’s working his way back up, and he’s in a good position to earn a second opportunity in the Cup Series – perhaps this time with Joe Gibbs Racing, the organization for which he currently competes in the Xfinity Series but that also fields the Cup Series cars of Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs.

In a wide-ranging interview with NASCAR Pole Position, Nemechek discussed his unusual career progression, his hobbies outside of racing, his favorite tracks, the influence of his father – former NASCAR Cup Series driver Joe Nemechek – and racing in memory of his late uncle John Nemechek, who died tragically in a Craftsman Truck Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1997, just a few months before John Hunter was born.

To what extent has your career path kind of surprised you?

I would say the surprise comes from almost revamping your career. I don’t feel like a lot of guys have gotten a shot to do that or they’ve kind of been written off when they haven’t won in different series or in a couple of years.

So being able to have the second opportunity to come back and show that I can win in the Truck Series, show that I can win in the Xfinity Series and hopefully end up in a top-tier Cup ride at some point in the future, I think the progression through the series and then kind of restarting almost has been kind of the biggest surprise for me compared to your conventional career path of trucks, Xfinity, Cup and then kind of staying there.

Do you feel like you went Cup Series racing too soon when you made the leap in 2020?

I wouldn’t say too soon. I feel like the situation I was in at Front Row Motorsports, I wouldn’t take it back and I don’t regret going there. I feel like it was a great opportunity for me to go and learn and to understand how hard Cup Series racing is, but I wouldn’t say too soon. … You can say “too soon” from the standpoint of just taking an opportunity when it presented itself rather than trying to wait for a top-tier ride, I guess you could say, with an organization that has proven that they can win races – but I don’t feel like I jumped too soon.

I feel like we had some great runs that year. We outperformed with what we had, and I feel like we turned a lot of heads that year as well. 

What does it say about you that you were willing to go back and run trucks and Xfinity after having had a full-time Cup Series ride?

It was taking a gamble on myself. When you have won in everything that you’ve pretty much sat in as a driver, and then you go and you don’t win, you start to question yourself if you can do it. There’s some self-doubt there on, “What am I doing? How can I win?” and different things of that sort, but I am the type of person that I will do whatever it takes – however many hours it takes being put in from the work side – to go out there and succeed.

I think being able to have the opportunity from K.B. (Kyle Busch) and Toyota/TRD to come back (to the Truck Series), it all made sense to me. It was a gamble that I had to take. If I had went to KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) and couldn’t win a race, then obviously that was probably the wrong gamble, but we were able to succeed really fast – I think the third race of the year we had won. That kind of paid off from just showing that we could win and were fast and were one of the guys to beat every single week.

What’s it been like carrying on the legacy of your uncle, John, and having his name?

It’s been unique. There’s a lot that I don’t necessarily know about John, and I had never met him. So, just hearing stories and different things of him, he was a competitor, but he was also a prankster and a jokester and all kinds of stuff behind the scenes, and pretty much everyone loved him when he was around them and whatnot.

So, I’m enjoying being able to carry on that legacy. I think it means a lot to my family to continue that on and go out there and do some things that he didn’t have the chance to do – like winning in the Truck Series and different things of that sort – so it’s really, really neat and knowing that he looks down on us and hopefully is smiling up there is really kind of heartwarming.

How much influence does your dad have on your career and how often do you guys talk?

He has had a huge influence on my career. When I drove for him, he was a boss, a mentor, kind of everything under the sun – a team owner. Since kind of moving away, we still chat about racing and different things of that sort. He’s not as heavily involved as he once was.

He’s kind of let me grow on my own, which I’ve been very thankful for, but at the same time, he is still there if I have questions or different things, and he’s still not afraid to pipe up if he sees me do something wrong or dumb or make a move that I probably shouldn’t have, but I feel like being able to chat with him – just from his experience side and some of the things that he’s been through in his racing career – definitely still helps out.

For instance, we had kind of a rough superspeedway deal at Talladega this year, and I made a move for the lead, and we ended up wrecked. Being able to go through different scenarios with him and get his input and see what he would have done different or get his thoughts on it, it’s pretty neat. He’s off doing his own thing now within the racing world — just different series other than NASCAR and having fun with it. He doesn’t get to come out to the track much, hardly at all, with his busy schedule, but still being able to talk is unique and great.

What do you enjoy outside of racing?

A little bit of everything, to be honest. I love being on a bike, mountain biking, road cycling, love being outside. We’re big into wake surfing, being on the lake, just kind of enjoying life. Going hiking. Don’t get much time to play golf anymore but just love being outside and playing sports and being competitive.

What’s your favorite track and why?

That one’s hard from the standpoint of I feel like there’s so many. But if I had to pick one or two places, I love Bristol because of the atmosphere. The Last Great Colosseum, there’s nothing like it energy-wise, but Darlington is probably one of my favorite race tracks to go to. I hated it when I first went there, I couldn’t figure it out, I struggled really bad, and since being able to kind of figure it Year Two, Year Three, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going there. It’s a unique track, tires fall off, a driver can make such a difference there, and those are the places I like to go.

What’s your least favorite track and why?

To be honest, I don’t really have a least favorite track. I’ve kind of grown to like almost everywhere we go. I think where it gets a little tough at times … I enjoy superspeedway racing when it goes good. When it goes bad, it’s not so much fun. But I feel like that’s almost everywhere that you go. I just love race tracks where a driver can make a huge difference, and when a driver can’t make a huge difference or there’s a lot of things out of your control, it can get frustrating. 

How confident are you that you’re going to end up with a future Cup Series ride, especially with Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin being near the end of their careers at Joe Gibbs Racing?

I don’t know. I thoroughly hope that I can slot in one of those seats or a seat in the Cup Series at some point, but I feel like it has to be the right opportunity for me. I like where I’m at right now in the Xfinity Series at Joe Gibbs Racing and with Toyota, but I do feel that my goal is to be back in a Cup Series car in the near future — to be able to go out and try to win races and championships.

I feel like I have the talent and determination to do so. I just have to have all the stars align and help build a program around myself and slot into a great car and great team. Who knows where that’ll be or how that’ll happen? But I feel like the future will take care of itself. I just have to focus on this year and winning races.

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