After completing his rookie NASCAR Cup Series season, John Hunter Nemechek moved back to the Camping World Truck Series for 2021.
His choice raised some eyebrows. But the 24-year-old had a clear goal.
“Winning can only help you and help your marketability,” he said last November after joining traditional Truck Series power Kyle Busch Motorsports. “I want to win races. I’m here to win races. That’s ultimately what it came down to.”
Nemechek appears to have made a wise decision.
The son of ‘Front Row Joe’ Nemechek posted a series-best five race wins and nine stage wins to claim the Truck regular-season championship.
It all adds up to 49 playoff points (2,049 points total following the reset) and the status of heavy favorite going into Friday’s Truck playoff opener at World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis.
It’s a big change from where he was a year ago, when he was, in his words, stressing out just to finish 25th every week in Cup. The lack of practice and qualifying last year under COVID-19 protocol didn’t help his learning process, either.
But now he’s re-established himself as a winning driver. And he admits that anything less than a championship would be, if not a failure, still disappointing.
“The goal was to come back and win as many races as possible through the year and try to win all the championships that we could,” Nemechek said Tuesday during Truck media day. “All of the money that (Camping World owner) Marcus Lemonis put up for the bonuses going throughout the year – that was huge for us as well.
“Our goal is to take the big trophy at the end of the year. I don’t know if I would categorize it as failure. We want to make it to that (Championship 4) in Phoenix and give it our best shot. If our best shot isn’t good enough, then we have work to do in the future.”
Behind Nemechek, the field is tight. Only 20 points cover everyone from second-seed Austin Hill (2,021 points) to 10th-seed Stewart Friesen (2,001 points). In the first round of the Truck playoffs, the top eight advance to the second round; a win gets you there automatically.
From this group, Hill has the most momentum. He closed the regular season with back-to-back victories on the dirt at Knoxville (Iowa) and the road course at Watkins Glen.
Those tracks won’t be revisited during the playoffs. But the victories have given Hill and his Hattori Racing Enterprises team an important boost.
“Before we won at the dirt track and before we won at the road course, we had won on mile-and-a-halves together, so we are kind of getting outside of that bubble that we were in, and we are winning at these different types of racetracks,” said Hill, who will start Friday’s race from pole.
“Now we feel like we can go to these types of racetracks and win anywhere we go, so that kind of builds the confidence even more going into these playoffs that we feel like we can get the job done no matter where we are at.”
That said, Hill, Nemechek and the others will have to dethrone GMS Racing’s Sheldon Creed, whose title defense is set to begin after a shaky regular season.
In the first 15 races, Creed only claimed a single win at Darlington. Additionally, four finishes of 32nd or worse anchored his average finish down to 14.7.
Entering last year’s playoffs, he had three wins and an average finish of 12.3.
But buoyed by consecutive third-place efforts on asphalt tracks Pocono and Watkins Glen, Creed feels that his No. 2 GMS team has hit its stride, if a little belatedly.
He’s also keen to see how a good starting position can help him Friday. Over the past five races, he’s started no better than 10th; in four of those five races, he started 16th or worse.
On Friday, he’ll start fourth.
“This is the first week that I’m starting in the top five in, I don’t even know how long,” said Creed, whose last top-five start came in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway (he finished 35th due to a crash).
“I’ve started outside the top 10 so much this year and it takes so long to get up toward the front. Just haven’t had trucks to race great.
“But I feel good about where our trucks are headed – where they’re going, where they’re at. I feel we’ll have a really good shot at winning.”
Truck Series playoff standings
Entering Round of 10
- John Hunter Nemechek – 2,049 points (+48 above cut line)
- Austin Hill – 2,021 points (+20)
- Ben Rhodes – 2,019 points (+18)
- Todd Gilliland – 2,015 points (+14)
- Sheldon Creed – 2,011 points (+10)
- Zane Smith – 2,009 points (+8)
- Matt Crafton – 2,004 points (+3)
- Carson Hocevar (R) – 2,002 points (+1)
- Chandler Smith (R) – 2,001 points (-1)
- Stewart Friesen – 2,001 points (-1)
Truck Series playoff schedule
(All times Eastern)
Round of 10 – Two drivers eliminated at end of round
- Friday – World Wide Technology Raceway, 9 p.m., FS1
- Sept. 5 – Darlington Raceway, 1:30 p.m., FS1
- Sept. 16 – Bristol Motor Speedway, 9 p.m., FS1
Round of 8 – Four drivers eliminated at end of round
- Sept. 24 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 9 p.m., FS1
- Oct. 2 – Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m., FS1
- Oct. 30 – Martinsville Speedway, 1 p.m., FS1
Championship 4 – Best finisher among four remaining drivers wins title
- Nov. 5 – Phoenix Raceway, 8 p.m. ET, FS1