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Eyes on Xfinity: Has John Hunter Nemechek’s ‘Trophy Hunting’ Paid Off?

In a COVID-ridden 2020 NASCAR season, a young, legacy driver was set to ride out his rookie year in the No. 38 Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports.

That young driver was John Hunter Nemechek.

In that season he went on to earn three top-10 finishes and came home 27th in the final points standings. However, Nemechek hadn’t sniffed the winner’s circle in two years of competition, and he was getting tired of it.

Of note, Nemechek refers to the move as a “departure.”

After 2020, Nemechek decided to part ways with FRM. Most drivers would set their eyes on the NASCAR Xfinity Series after departing from the sport’s highest level, but Nemechek had other plans.

Nemechek made the interesting decision to drop down to the Craftsman Truck Series and, as he called it, chase some trophies. And trophy chase he did.

The then-23-year-old driver left his family-owned NEMCO Truck series team to sign with Kyle Busch Motorsports and push that team towards a championship run. He went on to win seven races in two years with the team and record 30 top 10s.

Thus, “John Hunter Neme-truck” was born.

For the record, this is still the only name I will casually refer to Nemechek by.

Nemechek absolutely dominated the truck series for two full seasons, and everyone that was tuned in to the NASCAR scene was wondering what the next step was for the talented Mooresville, N.C. native.

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Fast forward to this past offseason, when Nemechek got a call from Joe Gibbs Racing to pilot their No. 20 Toyota Supra in the Xfinity Series, and that brings us up to speed.

After Nemechek took home the win at Fontana this past weekend, the questions are already starting to float. Is there a path back to the Cup Series? First, one has to look at the drivers in the seats ahead of — and even around — him.

Two of those drivers are a couple of the youngest in the series in Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs. Not only are they young, but Bell is coming off of a season where he had a shot at the championship, and aside from the familial ties, Gibbs just won the Xfinity championship a year ago. Both have proven they can win in the equipment and don’t look to be going anywhere any time soon.

The best chance for Nemechek, I believe, is Martin Truex Jr.‘s spot.

Truex is 42, and the 2017 Cup series champion has been rumored to be retiring much sooner rather than later. If Nemechek can be even close to as competitive as he was in trucks, he’s got a great shot at that seat.

That leaves us Pandora’s box – Denny Hamlin‘s seat and 23XI Racing.

Hamlin, much like Truex, isn’t getting any younger. On top of that, as a team owner, Hamlin is dealing with more out of the seat than ever before. It would be no surprise to me to see him run for 23XI in the future, or even step away and commit to being an owner full-time.

The two seats at 23XI aren’t exactly stable. Both drivers are young, and neither have had an immense amount of success just yet. Are there scenarios where Nemechek lands in a 23XI seat? Yes, but I wouldn’t put the mortgage on it.

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Finally, we have to look at the guys around him, particularly Sammy Smith. Smith is someone I had my eye on all off-season, and I wasn’t at all surprised when JGR gave him the full-time ride in the No. 18. Ryan Truex isn’t going to surpass Nemechek or Smith in my eyes, but he’s a factor nonetheless, especially with his last name.

The bottom line is this: Nemechek is putting himself in position to make a momentum-filled return to the Cup Series, and with the stars aligning at the right times, it could be sooner rather than later.

About the author

Tanner Marlar is a staff writer for On3 Sports' Maroon and White Daily covering Mississippi State Athletics, an AP Wire reporter, an award-winning sports columnist and talk show host and master's student at Mississippi State University. Soon, Tanner will be pursuing a PhD. in Communicative Research.

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dawg

John Hunter has proven that he can assess the situation, & make the right moves. The Toyota camp is slim pickings at the cup level. He could well be in line for the 19, if he does well in Xfinity, but if not. I think he learned enough the first time, not to jump at the first ride that comes available in Cup. If he were to consider all options, not just Toyota. Then his chances could open considerably. Either way I expect his future is bright.

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