Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: John Hunter Nemechek Makes a Statement in Bristol

Top Dog: John Hunter Nemechek

“You need tires you idiot!”

Ahh yes, the classic line from a disgruntled pit crew member on Lightning McQueen’s team in a fan-favorite racing movie Cars. It’s a good thing that McQueen wasn’t in the 2024 Food City 500 (March 17), because he definitely would not have made it long without that fresh rubber.

Tire management was the name in NASCAR’s return to concrete after Bristol Motor Speedway after a three-year stay on dirt. Drivers quickly recognized that they could not burn up their tires, as runs of 40-50 laps or more had their tires screaming for mercy.

See also
NASCAR Drivers, Teams Caught Off Guard by Bristol’s Goodyear Gremlins

Ironically, Bristol’s theme for the weekend was “Back to the Future,” and the race itself seemed like a blast to the past with an old fashioned short track race where conservation was the path to victory. Was it extreme? Yes, but it is certainly something NASCAR should build off.

Only five cars finished on the lead lap, the fewest since 2004 (yes, you read that right). Leading the pack of drivers one or more laps behind was John Hunter Nemechek in sixth, a career-best finish for him at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

Nemechek appeared to quickly adapt to the conditions, blazing through the field from 26th to fifth by the end of stage one, also a career-high stage finish.

Stage two was even better for the No. 42 driver, who capitalized on Toyota’s speed. He battled for the lead early in the stage, and by the end of the second frame, he earned seven more points in fourth.

The final stage featured the decision drivers had to make by either conserving their stuff or letting go and making a run to the front. Nemechek held steady inside the top 10, and despite falling a lap down by the end, he scored the best finish for the No. 42 since Legacy Motor Club began using it in 2022.

While only five races into 2024, Nemechek has quietly started off on the right foot. His second top 10 of the season has propelled him inside the top 16 in points. He currently sits 15th, ahead of five playoff drivers from 2023.

How Does it Compare?

Going back to the last Bristol spring race on concrete, which was in 2020, Nemechek’s run tops a pair of dark horse top 10s by Christopher Bell in ninth and Bubba Wallace in 10th. It matches one of the best Cinderella runs in the spring race in recent history, which was accomplished by Matt DiBenedetto in 2016 after he finished sixth with the now-defunct BK Racing. It also tops an eighth-place run by Justin Allgaier with HScott Motorsports in 2015.

Notable Underdog Runs

Had Nemechek not electrified the underdog field with his performance, Rick Ware Racing would have been (and should have been) in the spotlight. Both Justin Haley and Kaz Grala put on a clinic of attacking restarts to grab a few positions, backing off to save their stuff and keeping themselves in the fight.

Haley was another one who methodically worked through traffic, driving from 32nd to 14th by the end of stage one. His teal No. 51 could be seen jumping to the outside of drivers and keeping them pinned down to advance his position time and time again. Stage two was more physical, as Haley nearly wrecked following contact with Daniel Suarez in the middle of the stage, and a couple of other close moments relegated him to 20th by the end.

In the final stage, Haley fought his way into the top 10, getting as high as sixth. With 20 laps to go, the 24-year-old was still ninth. Unfortunately, his tires were used up, and he slipped to 17th by the end.

Grala started right behind Haley in 33rd, yet he, too, stormed his way to the front half of the field. By the end of stage two, he was scored in 11th. Grala ran inside the top 15 for the majority of the race before some tight action in the final stage pushed him outside the top 20. However, he made a final push at the end to earn a solid 19th-place result.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Tire Wear is Talk of the Town at Bristol

The finishes do not reflect how impressive the runs were by the RWR duo, as both cars would typically be several laps down in the past. Grala grabbed his second top 20 of the year, while Haley scored his best finish of the season. Finally, it feels like this little team has steered its ship in the right direction.

With the majority of issues the field experienced, there were going to be a few underdogs who fell victim to the rapid tire wear. Lap 31 was particularly disastrous for Spire Motorsports.

Following a caution, Tyler Reddick had stayed out to assume the lead. He didn’t last there long, spinning out off turn 4. Zane Smith maneuvered to the apron only to have his path meet the door of Reddick’s No. 45. The field stacked up behind them and led to both Corey LaJoie and Carson Hocevar sustaining minimal damage. Smith’s day only got worse, as the No. 71 lost a tire on lap 71.

Both LaJoie and Hocevar rebounded to restart on the front row on lap 234, but quickly succumbed to the fields’ fresher tires. LaJoie finished 21st, while a flat tire late in the race stranded Hocevar in 27th. Smith’s nightmare start to 2024 continued due to an engine issue forcing him out of the race, leaving him in 36th. After finishing 13th in the Daytona 500, Smith has four consecutive finishes of 29th or worse.

Todd Gilliland had some bright spots during the race, spending some time in the top five during stage two. However, he experienced a corded tire in the final stage, sinking him to 26th by the end.

What They’re Saying

Nemechek (sixth):

Haley (17th): “We were fast. At the end the tires just fell off, but we ran in the top 10 all day and that’s awesome to establish that because it put a lot of smiles on a lot of people’s faces. I’m excited to keep digging. I feel like the cars have speed, we just need to keep running like that and we’ll be OK.’ (via Rick Ware Racing’s race recap)

AJ Allmendinger (23rd): “We initially struggled to find balance in our No. 16 Mountain Dew/Cheetos Chevy. Combined with the tire issues the field faced, we had our hands full. I’m proud of our team and Travis [Mack] on the pit box. The way our day started, it wasn’t looking good, but we refocused as a team and made the most out of our day.” (via Kaulig Racing’s race recap)

Daniel Hemric (28th): “Lots of highs and lows during this long race. We had a solid second stage, but after making some contact with the wall, we just fought a really tight-handling No. 31 Cirkul Chevy. The right front would wear quickly, and the rear would start going away not long after. Hopefully we can come back in the fall for some redemption.” (via Kaulig’s race recap)

See also
Stock Car Scoop: A Wild, Tire-Wear-Filled Afternoon at Bristol

Underdog Bracket Challenge

On the same day that the NCAA revealed the bracket for March Madness (this UVA fan is shocked they got in), the first round of the Underdog Bracket Challenge took place in a wild spectacle. There were a few upsets, as well as a few drivers who were fortunate to have a bye. Here’s how things shaped up:

(5) Erik Jones defeats (12) Zane Smith. Jones will face (4) Corey LaJoie next week.

(11) Justin Haley defeats (6) Todd Gilliland. Haley will face (3) Daniel Hemric.

(10) Kaz Grala defeats Harrison Burton. RWR No. 15 will face (2) Kaulig Racing’s No. 16.

(8) John Hunter Nemechek defeats (9) Carson Hocevar. Nemechek will face (1) Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

March may feature NASCAR and the NCAA Tournament, but it also sets the tone for a new MLB season. Hocevar’s No. 77 was fit for the occasion in Bristol, featuring Baltimore Orioles colors. In partnership with Gainbridge, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation sponsored Hocevar’s entry, gearing fans up for some peanuts and cracker jacks.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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Family Dollar spent $10 million to go racing. Meanwhile, they’re closing 1000 stores. Family Dollar was recently fined $41.7 million, the largest-ever financial criminal penalty in a food safety case. Chipotle had been number one with a $25 million fine.

NA$CAR and LMC don’t seem to care where their money comes from. I hope the check from Family Dollar bounces along with the rats running the show.

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