Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Publicly, John Hunter Nemechek Is Playing the Long Game

Depending on who you ask, John Hunter Nemechek was either done wrong by the action of Ty Gibbs in the final two turns of Saturday’s (April 2) ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway … or it was good, hard racing.

Either way, fans in the stands and at home were treated to a fantastic finish in an overall bland race by the standards set so far in 2022. Gibbs and Nemechek were the two dominant cars, hands down, and combined to lead all but one lap. No one else would be able touch them outside of a wild restart, or unless they took each other out.

At times, it seemed like they might.

Nemechek went from racing in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 back down to the Camping World Truck Series in 2021. He wanted to win races and contend for a title, something he wasn’t doing at Front Row Motorsports in the Cup Series. In the Truck Series, he signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports and was the driver to beat in the regular season, winning five of the 15 regular season races. Despite making last year’s Championship 4 race at Phoenix Raceway, he mostly floundered in the playoffs and a poor finale ended his title chances.

On top of his full-time Truck duties, he competed in five NASCAR Xfinity Series races in 2021, two with Sam Hunt Racing and three with Joe Gibbs Racing. Nemechek was a contender for a top 10, if not a top five, in each start. A mechanical issue at Dover Motor Speedway relegated him and Sam Hunt Racing to a 32nd-place finish after running inside the top 10. The crash that ultimately ended the fall Talladega Superspeedway race placed his JGR Toyota in 22nd.

His other three finishes were a third at Richmond with Sam Hunt, a win at Texas Motor Speedway and a sixth at Phoenix, the latter two with JGR.

Some may have been surprised that Nemechek didn’t make the jump to the Xfinity Series in 2022 with any team, but particularly with Gibbs or Hunt. Saturday’s post-race interviews, including his television interview, showed that JGR is a potential landing spot for Nemechek in 2023.

Nemechek had trailed Gibbs’ No. 54, keeping within a reasonable striking distance for several laps. With five laps to go, Nemechek wrapped the bottoms of turns 1 and 2 better than Gibbs and, on the backstretch, stuck his nose up to the door of the No. 54. Side-by-side through turns 3 and 4, the pair sailed into turn 1 with four laps to go once again, even with one another. However, this time on the backstretch, Nemechek’s nose pulled ahead of Gibbs.

Crossing the line with three to go, Nemechek was barely clear of Gibbs but didn’t move up. Nemechek was clear and ahead of Gibbs when they exited turn 2. He had completed the pass cleanly, but Gibbs got a better run off the corner and immediately used the front bumper of his Toyota against Nemechek.

After multiple bumps to Nemechek’s rear bumper, Gibbs moved to the inside as they entered turn 3, but Nemechek prevailed on the outside, retaining a clear lead as two laps remained.

Gibbs was once more strong off the exit of turn 2, pulling alongside Nemechek. Gibbs slid up the track and into Nemechek as they traveled through turns 3 and 4. Contact was made, but the two cars were pointed in the right direction as they took the white flag.

Gibbs gave Nemechek a shot in the back and another into turn 1 before sticking his nose below him. They were nearly door-to-door down the backstretch, with the advantage going to Nemechek by a couple of feet. But as they entered turn 3, Gibbs clearly missed the corner. Whether the miss was intentional or accidental was unknown at the time. Gibbs pulled ahead and crossed the line first, winning the race.

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Ty Gibbs Continues Dominance at Richmond

Nemechek immediately expressed his displeasure with Gibbs when he pushed him down into turn 1 on the cool-down lap and ever so slightly pulled to his inside and ran him up the racing surface.

In his post-race television interview with FOX Sports’ Regan Smith, Nemechek specifically said that he and Gibbs would settle the issue on Monday. He added, “I don’t want to say too much [and] get myself in trouble.” He was more critical moments later with FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass, but was still relatively restrained.

You might think that Nemechek chose to say he didn’t want to say too much to avoid getting himself in trouble because there are more immediate viewers. And you may be thinking that he didn’t want to get a dressing down from NASCAR. However, I believe his words strongly indicated something to watch during the upcoming silly season. I’m not stepping out on a thin limb, but Joe Gibbs Racing looks like a realistic landing spot for Nemechek in 2023.

His performances have been stellar in the select starts for him. But that is precisely what is expected and what he needs to do. If he doesn’t produce, he doesn’t get the call to drive again. On top of that, the chances of Nemechek being a successor to Ty Gibbs also seems low. Why is that? Just look at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Toyota lineup. Unless there is a surprise retirement, which isn’t outside of the realm of possibility, there will be no room for Gibbs in a chartered Cup team.

That means that Nemechek really has to watch his mouth in a situation like Saturday’s. There is a decent chance that Gibbs will be his teammate in 2023. Heck, if Trevor Bayne continues to impress in his remaining races with JGR, he could also wind up being teammates with Gibbs and Nemechek. But that’s another story.

Of course, the other option for Nemechek is Sam Hunt Racing, which is receiving support from Toyota Racing Development. As noted before, Nemechek has given SHR some of its best showings. If you watched most of the Xfinity Series in 2021, you saw that specific drivers could take the SHR Toyota to the front, or at the very least, to the front of the midpack. But Nemechek was one of the drivers that broke past the midfield wall. SHR has two top-five finishes, and Nemechek was the driver behind both.

Publicly, Nemechek played the long game in his interviews after Saturday’s race. Even if SHR is the team he drives for in 2023, he’ll still be driving Toyota and effectively will be teammates with JGR drivers. Nemechek felt like he was wronged, and when you compare how he was raced and how he raced Gibbs, you can easily see his frustration. He passed Gibbs cleanly, and Nemechek was shoved up the racing surface. Those numbers don’t add up.

Currently, Nemechek has three remaining NXS races announced for 2022. He’ll be back behind the wheel of the No. 18 at Dover to end April and at Texas in the fall. Then he’ll be driving the No. 26 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in additional races in the Nos. 26 or 24 for SHR. If Nemechek continues to win and be in championship form in his Kyle Busch Motorsports truck, the next logical step is to move into a competitive Xfinity ride.

To find his way into a Toyota Supra, let alone a JGR Toyota Supra, he’ll have to continue to watch his criticism of Ty Gibbs. Let’s not play games. If Nemechek is or was critical of Gibbs in a blatant way, that wouldn’t be the most impressive action in the eyes of the top brass at JGR. One more task he’ll have to be strategic about: Nemechek did say that racers never forget. How he chooses to repay Gibbs, if at all, will likely be a highly watered-down version of how he truly feels.

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Richard Kobby Asante

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