John Hunter Nemechek bet on himself over the winter for exactly this sort of opportunity.
Before rejoining the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports and crew chief (uncle) Eric Phillips, Nemechek accomplished a personal goal of advancing to the Cup Series purely on merit, but the satisfaction fell short there.
“I was stressing out to try to run 25th every week,” Nemechek said of his Front Row Motorsports No. 38 entry. “Putting in a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of sim time, a lot of studying, data, with no practice. Rookie year, Cup Series, it was difficult.”
Nemechek finished the season 27th in points with a 22.4 average finish — and that was probably the best he could have done according to almost every underlying metric.
The second-generation racer believes he could become so much more once the Next Gen comes around, so he accepted the deal from Toyota and Kyle Busch to prove it and enters the final seven races as the driver to beat.
It’s rewarding when a perennial underdog becomes the favorite.
“It’s definitely nice to be called the favorite, but at the same time, just because we are called the favorite doesn’t mean that we stop working,” Nemechek said. “There is a lot of work, a lot of detailed work, a lot of execution, a lot of optimizations from week in and week out, studying, a lot of things that go in to making you the favorite.
“We are humble. We want to continue to win races and for myself, I’ve been the underdog. I’ve had that mindset, and now we are kind of the favorite going into it.”
Any conversation about the Truck Series championship has to include the guys who won it last year in Sheldon Creed and the GMS Racing No. 2 team.
“A lot of the time I was starting last, if not one of those back positions, and towards the end of the race I’d always get myself to the front battling for race wins,” Creed said. “So yeah, that’s where that came from.”
Creed is mulling options to compete in Cup or Xfinity next season, and while it’s not a foregone conclusion he is moving on from the Truck Series, there would be a certain poetry to winning back-to-back championships before advancing up the ranks.
“Would love to back up our title and bring another championship home to GMS and Chevrolet, but it’s so easy to say that right?” Creed said. “It’s a lot of work behind-the-scenes and it’s going to take a lot of work to win and get our way in there.”
If Nemechek is a championship favorite due to his five wins, and Creed due to his resume, similar cases can be made throughout the field.
This is anyone’s championship, especially with a format that frequently lends itself to advancing purely on fortune or misfortune, with a playoff schedule that includes Talladega Superspeedway right in the middle of it.
The first three-race round is Gateway, Darlington and Bristol followed by Las Vegas, Talladega and Martinsville. Two drivers will be cut after the first three races and four more after the next three races leaving four drivers to determine the championship on November 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
Winning a race automatically advances a driver into the next round while eliminations will be determined based on the driver lowest in points without a win amongst the eligible contenders in both rounds.
The best finisher of the final four will be crowned champion.
One might then be compelled to look at wins to determine championship likelihood, but three-time champion Matt Crafton scoffs at the notion.
He doesn’t have a win yet, and it doesn’t bother him in the slightest.
“Not even a little bit,” Crafton said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I like to give you all something to complain about and talk about, so it’s all about taking care of the media.”
He said that oozing with sarcasm, if it wasn’t obvious, but he should feel that way. After all, Crafton earned his third championship in 2019 without winning a race all season. He survived each round and was the best of the final four when it mattered that year.
“I couldn’t tell you how many points I have or where I stand or where I stack up,” Crafton said. “I don’t care about any of that. All I know is my task at hand is to go maximize my points each and every week. I don’t even know where I start (Gateway).
“All I know is I’m going to go out there and have a different mindset going into these next few races to get to Phoenix and have something to prove. I always do that each and every week, but at the same time, if you go out and maximize your points, it will take care of itself.”
To wit, even if Zane Smith, Carson Hocevar, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith remain winless, there is a realistic pathway for each of them to advance towards NASCAR history.
This is especially true for Smith, the top Toyota prospect and teammate at Kyle Busch Motorsports to Nemechek, meaning he has the same equipment as the team that won five of the first 15 races.
Smith has led the second most number of laps this year, behind Nemechek but four more than Creed, and has just suffered a tremendous amount of misfortune. No one embraces the reset of the playoffs more than the rookie contender.
“I feel like the past five or six races, we’ve been really good,” Smith said. “I feel like we have been one of the best trucks when we go the racetrack. It’s just a matter that we haven’t been able to really show it because something happens that forces us into a bad situation, so that we are not able to show it.”
Like Smith, Hocevar has been one of the top Super Late Model drivers in the country over the past two years and has backed that resume up with speed in his first full-time Truck Series effort. Further, Smith and Hocevar have both been to almost every track on the playoff schedule, making them yellow stripers purely as a practical matter.
“Other than Talladega, there isn’t a track I haven’t been to so I don’t know that I’m really a rookie beyond this being my first playoffs,” Hocevar said.
Nemechek has a 28-point advantage over second seeded Austin Hill, but Hill to bottom seeded Stewart Friesen are all bunched within 20 points of each other.
In other words, while winning goes a long way, simply avoiding mistakes and retaining track position to score stage points is the way to get to Phoenix at the end of the year.
“Honestly, I’m not looking at a whole lot of points situations,” Hill said. “I think we are pretty good where we are sitting. I think that if we don’t win in the first round, we feel confident enough that we can at least keep that second-place spot.
“If we do close the gap on Nemechek, then great. If not, as long as we can stay in the top-four in each round and get us to Phoenix, that is all we are worried about right now.”
Hill drives for Hattori Racing, who captured the 2018 championship with Brett Moffitt, and a continual theme of success since joining the organization.
“I personally feel like we have the upper hand on everybody,” Hill said. “I feel like we can compete with the 4 team, and I think that we are the team that they need to be worries about the most.”
There’s also Ben Rhodes, who opened the season with back-to-back wins at Daytona on the superspeedway and road course, but no victories since.
They have, however, averaged a top-10 the rest of the way, which is good for second best in the division.
“I’m pretty chill to be honest,” Rhodes said. “No, not really worried. I think we will be fine. Ships not really sinking. There’s no holes in it. It seems pretty solid, so it’s made of metal.
“We are going to just keep on floating on. Season resetting here, we are just going to kind of calm down and kind of rebuild some momentum and not really focus on anything crazy. We don’t need to go out and win a race right off the bat here. The biggest thing is to kind of let some other people make some mistakes.”
Todd Gilliland enters his second Truck Series playoff appearance with a win and 8.4 average finish and the confidence to expect a championship caliber run, even if he concedes he’s not a de facto favorite.
“The greedy side of you obviously wants to win, but I’d say with the way we’ve been running and we’ve been getting really good stage points,” Gilliland said. “I mean you still have to be super consistent, but you also have to go for wins.
“Hopefully, our consistency can keep ratcheting up a notch every so often. I think we’ve been doing that. We were just inside the top 10 and now we’ve been top 5 every week. Now if we can go to top three for the whole playoffs, then obviously that will put you in a good spot to be one of the top four to go to Phoenix, and then once you get there you’ve got to go for broke and go all-out for the win.”
Meanwhile, Crafton is looking to make history.
Should he win his fourth championship, it would tie him with Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday, who made Crafton a promise as extra motivation.
“Last week we had a beer together and he said if I make the final four, he might just show up and be there and come on stage and have a shot,” Crafton said. “He was there when I won three and (Carl) Joiner (crew chief) and I held up threes and Hornaday stood next to us with his four and said ‘Still one more to go boys. Four, you could get there.’
“I’m sure he would be proud without a doubt, especially all of us coming from the West Coast, but I’m sure down inside he’s like ‘man, I would like to hold this one as my own.’”
Surely, Creed would want to keep the trophy at GMS and the rookies want to make a statement, or veterans like Friesen, Hill or Rhodes viewing the accomplishment as something akin to validation.
Nemechek is #Here4Wins.
“We’ve had the championship mindset from the first race of the year, and now we are going to continue to do so,” Nemechek said. “We’ve got to win when it counts and hopefully, we can carry the momentum and all of the race wins that we’ve had so far this year into the Playoffs. … We can’t beat ourselves.”
Those are the stakes over the next seven races in three months. The chase is on.
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