We all knew that John Hunter Nemechek was going to be back in the NASCAR Cup Series eventually.
This week, the 26-year-old finally made it official: He will be the new driver of the Legacy Motor Club’s No. 42 entry in 2024.
This caps off a circuitous four-year journey that began when Nemechek announced at the end of the 2020 season that he would be voluntarily dropping back to the Craftsman Truck Series after just one season competing in the Cup Series. Many heads were turned at this seemingly unorthodox move, as historically, NASCAR drivers who make it to the top rung of the sport typically do not remove themselves from that rung — especially after just a year or two at that level.
But in a highly publicized move, Nemechek left his mediocre Cup office, found a ride at a powerhouse Truck Series team and began a brand new climb back to the top while reinventing himself in the hopes of getting in better equipment once he finally got back to the top.
After all, his brief first stint in Cup was not great. He finished 27th in points with just three top 10s.
By voluntarily dropping down, Nemechek found success nearly right off the bat. Driving at Kyle Busch Motorsports with Toyota newly in his corner, Nemechek dominated the Truck Series, nearly winning its championship. Moving up to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2023, he is now in the position to do the exact same thing.
But what is lost in the shuffle is that Nemechek is not the only driver to have done this. In fact, there are several instances of a driver who has made a Grover Cleveland-esque move to leave Cup only to come back seasons later in better equipment.
Most notable is Alex Bowman, who had two disastrous seasons of Cup Series competition in 2014 and 2015. He too dropped out of Cup, reinvented himself as something more than just a back-marker and ultimately earned a spot on the Hendrick Motorsports roster in 2018.
AJ Allmendinger found a home at Kaulig Racing’s Xfinity program after being let go from a Cup ride in 2017. He ultimately was promoted back up to Cup by Kaulig and just barely missed the playoffs this year.
Finally, there is Aric Almirola, who many forget had a brief stint as a Cup driver in the late 2000s. Once he proved himself as a dependable Xfinity driver for JR Motorsports, Richard Petty quickly brought him back up.
If the past decade has taught us anything, we have learned that Xfinity and Trucks compose a true MLB-style farm system where drivers can freely rise and fall through the ranks with ease as in the case of the three aforementioned drivers.
Prior to that, if a Cup driver dropped out of that seres, there was likely a slim-to-no chance for him to ever return. Many competitors like Ron Hornaday Jr., Ted Musgrave or Kevin Lepage were labeled as damaged goods and ultimately grandfathered into the lower series.
With the Cup Series more competitive than ever, this trend will likely continue. There are already rumors that Daniel Hemric could make a Cup return in 2024. Cole Custer is currently on a very similar path to Nemechek, and Anthony Alfredo and Matt DiBenedetto are rumored candidates, albeit massive long shots, for a Kaulig Cup ride next year.
With this trend not slowing down, will drivers be less and less content to sit in a mediocre ride? And will that eventually produce an ARCA-style competition gap?
One thing is for sure: Nemechek has ultimately achieved the goal he set off to achieve after making the difficult and risky decision to leave the sport’s mountaintop.
About the author
Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.
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