Earning the first top-10 finish of your NASCAR Cup career is a significant accomplishment for a Cup rookie.
Doing so at one of the toughest tracks in the sport makes it an even greater and sweeter achievement.
Such was the case Sunday for John Hunter Nemechek at Darlington Raceway. In just his eighth career Cup start, he finished a career-best ninth.
“We came in with no expectations, we just kind of had the mindset to run every lap and learn the most that we possibly could,” Nemechek said in a media teleconference. “And while doing that we made the right adjustments all day.
“We stayed on top of the race track and we kind of ran our own race and it led to us running top 15 most of the day, which is a really great accomplishment for myself and Front Row Motorsports for my first time being at Darlington in a Cup car and just trying to learn.”
Not only did Nemechek learn, he may have taught the venerable “Lady In Black” a few lessons as well.
“It’s definitely a hard race track, but, overall, the pit crew did amazing,” Nemechek said. “(Crew chief Seth Barbour) and myself did great at communicating.
“The engineers were awesome. It was a full team effort and we stayed on top of it, so it was definitely a great day and something to be proud of for us.”
It was also Front Row Motorsports’ best effort ever on a mid-range track (between one and two miles). Darlington is 1.366 miles in length.
“It’s pretty amazing to have that accomplishment and hopefully we can continue to have the momentum roll our way,” Nemechek said. “It came down to the final restart and we had our car tuned up for the end.”
Nemechek was one of two rookies to end Sunday’s race in the top 10. Tyler Reddick finished seventh.
“I was hoping we were gonna have a couple more laps,” Nemechek said. “I think we could have got Reddick and Erik Jones (finished eighth), but, overall, a solid day. I’m looking forward to going back to Darlington on Wednesday.”
Tonight’s race has had its start time pushed forward to 6 p.m. ET because of the threat of rain.
How he performed Sunday and hopes to perform tonight, weather permitting, is quite the juxtaposition for Nemechek compared to his first-ever visit in a race car to Darlington last year in the Xfinity Series.
He started 16th and finished 21st, one lap down from the leaders.
“We weren’t very good at Darlington last year in the Xfinity Series, so for myself to kind of go there with an open mindset (for Sunday’s Cup race), a lot of preparation was done, a lot of video was watched,” he said. “(I also) talked to quite a few Cup drivers during the quarantine about Darlington when we knew that we were going back there and just tried to be a sponge and just soak everything up.
“I would say Darlington last year I didn’t really like the place. It definitely was a struggle for myself and for our team last year. We weren’t that great.
“So coming into Darlington this year it was completely different than the Xfinity car, just trying to make the most of the situation. And with no practice I definitely (feel) like it almost gave our team a little bit of a better opportunity to run good as we didn’t have time to either mess up our car or our adjustments and set up through practice.
“But it didn’t really allow others to make major gains through practice, where we might not be able to do the same, so it was a lot of fun being able to tame the Lady in Black, and I had a blast.
“It’s a place I really like now, not really from last year, but being able to slide around and tire wear, being able to run multiple grooves, it was overall just a really fun race and really great just to be back in the seat.
“I think from a confidence standpoint it definitely makes me feel really good to be able to go back there.”