Before this week, John Hunter Nemechek‘s best Christmas gift came about seven years ago.
He received an Allison Legacy car, a 3/4-scale stock car with about 110 HP. He raced it throughout the Southeast, competing at Hickory Motor Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium and other tracks.
“That’s really the deciding factor of what I wanted to race,” Nemechek told NBC Sports on Thursday. “I wanted to get back in stock cars from motorcross. That was really the first stock car I had ever driven. So it was pretty neat to get that for Christmas.”
Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek, drove to the series championship in 2012 when he was 15. A year later, he competed in his first two Camping World Truck Series races.
“Without that Allison Legacy car, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now,” said Nemechek.
Nemechek is a few days removed from being named one of the drivers of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series next season. The move comes after he spent the last two seasons competing full-time for his family-owned NEMCO Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, with two part-time seasons before that.
The 20-year-old driver will join Kyle Larson in sharing the ride, which boasts the same number that Nemechek’s father raced when he earned his first Cup win in 1999. Then he drove for Felix Sabates, who now a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.
“It’s definitely up there,” Nemcheck said of where his new ride ranks among the Christmas gifts he’s received. “I’d have to say that it’s definitely up at the top of that list.”
The news of Nemechek’s jump up NASCAR’s ladder came six months after he stood in victory lane at Gateway Motorsports Park in tears on Father’s Day.
NEMCO Motorsports struggled through multiple seasons to attract sponsorship to its No. 8 Chevrolet. By the time Gateway rolled around in June this season, there were doubts the team would be able to make it to the following race at Iowa Speedway.
Having secured a playoff spot at Gateway, Nemechek wound up winning that race too.
Nemechek’s sponsor, Fire Alarm Services, stepped to sponsor him in 12 of the season’s remaining 14 races. He narrowly advanced to the second round of the playoffs before being eliminated.
“Before Gateway it kind of was like a make-or-break season for us in the Truck Series deal,” Nemehcek said. “Not knowing how many races we were going to get to in the full year. That definitely stunk for us. Being able to make it to all those races showed what we can do. I think the (Ganassi) opportunity arose some from that and what we’ve been able to do and show in years passed.”
For two weeks before the announcement, Nemechek kept his news quiet. The rest of the NASCAR world learned he had new plans on Dec. 5, when he posted a black-and-white video on Twitter.
Three days later, he posted a picture of a car underneath a black sheet, saying the news was coming soon.
Even then, some didn’t think he was going to be racing in Xfinity or even Cup.
“There was people saying that I was still going Truck racing even though we posted that picture,” Nemechek said. “I thought that was pretty funny. ”
During his time in the Truck Series, Nemechek managed to earn five wins. With NEMCO Motorsports financial struggles, Nemechek said he never believed his NASCAR career would end in the Truck Series, though “you always have thoughts in the back of your head.”
But winning does solve problems.
“We stayed focused on one goal and that was to run as best as we could and make sure we finish races and win races and the rest will take care of itself,” Nemechek said. “We had some great partners along the way. There’s been a lot of people that have helped me get to this point, from my first ever sponsor when I ran quarter midgets all the way to now with Fire Alarm Services. We didn’t have any speculation whether or not it was going to be an Xfinity ride or whatever it may be. The goal was to keep progressing and now we’re here.”
On Thursday, two days after the news broke (with another black-and-white video), Nemechek celebrated his first Christmas with his new team at Ganassi’s holiday lunch.
Every person Ganassi employees, from NASCAR to IndyCar, was there.
“I can’t even think of the number off the top of my head,” Nemechek said.
It’s a far cry from the team Nemechek has called home for most of his race career. Outside him and his father, NEMCO Motorsports has five full-time employees.
“It’s definitely going to be different getting to know everybody’s name,” Nemechek said. “I’m sure I won’t be able to remember every single name that works here in this building.”
Nemechek’s role will also slightly change with his new employment. His only job will be in the cockpit of the No. 42.
“I definitely loved driving for dad,” Nemechek said. “I loved every second of it. He taught me a lot. He’s given me every opportunity I’ve ever gotten until now. It’s definitely going to be a different transition into not working on the vehicle every day to being focused on one thing and that’s to be a driver. I definitely think there’s going to be some different changes there as far as what I’m focusing on and hopefully that’s going to make me a better driver in the long-run.”
While all the races Nemechek will run next year have not been finalized, he does know when he’ll get to fully enjoy his early Christmas gift.
He’ll hit the track as a Chip Ganassi Racing driver for the first time on Feb. 26 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.