AVONDALE, Ariz. – After a dominant five-win season and entering Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 as the championship favorite, the dark cloud of misfortune keeps John Hunter Nemechek from claiming the 2021 title.
“I had probably one of the fastest trucks tonight,” Nemechek said post race, “and nothing to show for it.”
It was one of the few races during the year where the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series had practice and qualifying, something that the NASCAR sanctioning body removed since last year’s COVID-19 pandemic. Nemechek qualified a surprising 16th, last among the Championship 4 drivers. That would prove fatal to his title hopes after contact with other trucks while he attempted to climb through the field during Stage 1.
“It’s pretty disappointing when somebody runs into you getting into Turn 1, and it ruins your night. We got into the fence, then somebody cleaned out the left side – pretty much destroyed the truck. Then we cut a left front tire down, went two laps down, and was only able to get one back. Everybody (in front of us a lap down) was taking wave arounds, then they would get lapped again and a caution would come out, so we just couldn’t get our final lap back. I feel like if we could have gotten it back sooner, we would have had an even better shot.
“Just needed more laps there at the end. I was running down Zane (Smith) and Ben (Rhodes) there. Just frustrating.”
And frustrating it must be. Last weekend, Nemechek nearly missed advancing into the Championship 4 after Austin Wayne Self hooked the No. 4 Toyota Tundra into the outside wall at Martinsville Speedway. Nemechek had just enough of a points cushion to make it through. Being in a helpless situation though also transferred into the Arizona desert a week later. When he finally did get back on the lead lap late into the final stage, the battle between Zane Smith and eventual champion Ben Rhodes was just a speckling dot far ahead of the field.
“It’s more frustrating knowing we were so fast, and had nothing to show for it,” Nemechek chuckled as he reflected on his bad luck from the last two races of the Playoffs. “I definitely thought we were one of the best Playoff trucks, if not the best Playoff truck. If we could have had track position, I thought that we could have been battling the 18 for the win from a lap time standpoint. I think that’s what hurts the most.”
Some might point out the lack of caution flags, which may have been anticipated by some. With his truck set up for what appeared to be more long run speed, it would have played out in his favor. The help of yellows and the free pass rule by NASCAR never came.
“Out of the Playoff trucks, I thought we were the fastest,” Nemechek stated. “I drove from the back, 2 laps down, to the top 10 every single run. If we had track position. I thought we could have fought the 18 for the win. I don’t know how good we were on the short side compared to others. Zane was super fast on the short side, but if we would have had a five lap or 10 lap run, I think we could have gotten them. Restarts are hectic, and that’s what cost me tonight.”
While the rain came down and poured heavily, Nemechek knows to keep his head high from a strong season. His five wins came at different style tracks, and his talent was well displayed when he signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports. In fact, less than a month ago, his team took notice of that too, as he signed a contract extension to return in the No. 4 truck in 2022. The relationship is one that Nemechek knows is strong from all angles, and because of that, he doesn’t consider his third place run in the championship a failure.
“I’ve gotten asked the question of, ‘Is this year a failure if we didn’t win the championship,’ – now that I’m here, no it wasn’t a failure. We had good speed all year. We were one of the favorites every single week. No, it doesn’t surprise me that we had one of the best trucks tonight. I feel like KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) has been strong here. This has been one of my best race tracks. Erik Philips has been strong here. If you had asked me that question after practice, I would have probably answered the opposite. But it doesn’t surprise me.”
Saturday brings a new day. Nemechek will be driving the No. 54 Mobil 1 Toyota Supra and competing for another championship. This time will be for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Owners Championship in a ride that he has shared with 2021 ARCA Menards Series champion Ty Gibbs, Ty Dillon, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, and NASCAR Cup Series Championship 4 drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. It’s an opportunity where he hopes he can end the weekend one for two.
“At least I have another shot at another race,” he exclaimed with a small grin. “That car is super fast, probably way faster than the truck was tonight. It sucks because you run this all year, you’re fighting for a driver’s championship. Over there, an owners championship is nice, but at the same time, I haven’t been in that car all year, just filling in races here and there. Thankful for the opportunities for sure, and hopefully we can go get that championship for the JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) organization.”
But with where he competes full-time, it’s a few months of what ifs to try again to claim the crown.
“Something to build on I guess, go into next year and try to win all of them.”