Every good story needs a protagonist and an antagonist.
My 5th grade English teacher wasn’t great, but she did at least teach me that, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series is no different. There are rivalries all over the grid, but could Chandler Smith and John Hunter Nemechek be the best one to watch for years to come?
There are a few key things that are needed to invoke two drivers being deemed as “rivals,” and for some it takes longer than others, but others, like these two, seem to have been at odds for quite some time. That brings us to the first bullet point: do they like each other?
The answer seems to be no, not really. On this week’s episode of Door, Bumper, Clear, a great podcast from Dirty Mo Media, Smith joined the hosts (NASCAR Spotters Freddie Kraft, TJ Majors and Brett Griffin) to talk about his weekend at Richmond Raceway.
With about 30 minutes left in the show, Smith delves into his relationship with Nemechek while they were in the Craftsman Truck Series racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Smith was talking about the instance towards the end of a race when he and Nemechek were battling for the lead and why Smith chose to remain on the high side of the track.
“Me and John Hunter did not have a good past at KBM,” said Smith. “We never helped each other, we were always against each other, it seemed like, so I expected him to race me like a complete asshole.
However, Smith did say immediately after that Nemechek did race him clean, and that it was “not the same John Hunter at all” that he raced at KBM. While those two statements may contradict each other, its obvious that there has been some bad blood there before. Check box one.
Then there’s box number two: are they good?
I’m a racing sicko who likes watching two drivers battle for 30th place like their lives depends on it, but if everyone thought like me, we’d be in much more trouble than we are today. People care more about drivers that fight at the front of the pack than the back — that’s a fact.
This is probably the easiest answer on the board. Hell yes, they are. I’ve even written about Nemechek’s path back to the NASCAR Cup Series in this very column a few weeks back, and Smith, at just 20 years old, is one of the most interesting drivers in the Xfinity Series as far as his combination of talent, youth and marketability are concerned.
Seven weeks into the season, Nemechek has an average finish of 7.429. He’s making the Toyota equipment look better than his predecessor Brandon Jones ever did, and if you’re a returning reader of this column, you’ll know that’s no surprise.
Smith has an average finish of 9.286, which translates to the simple fact that these two are typically running around each other inside the top 10 week in and week out, and they’re doing it towards the end of the race, when tensions are highest. Yes, they’re good, and they’re scarily similar levels of good, too.
Finally, the last part of a great rivalry, how long can it last?
Everyone knows that Chastain will be around for plenty of time, and that Denny is on the downhill slope of his career. Smith and Nemechek, however, are 20 and 25, respectively, and are both trending towards getting a serious upgrade in the coming seasons. We’re going to blink, five years will pass, and they’ll be battling it out in the Cup Series just like they’ve done for years.
The Xfinity Series has been home to some great rivalries over the past few seasons, last season in particular with Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs, and that’s what makes the series so interesting. We could be witnessing two of the sport’s future stars duking it out in some of the most level equipment they’ll ever drive, so it’s time NASCAR fans make like kids playing Street Fighter and choose their (driver).
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