PHOENIX – A year ago John Hunter Nemechek bet on himself.
He voluntarily left an established NASCAR Cup Series race for the opportunity to win a Camping World Truck Series championship with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Nemechek is 150 spins from the jackpot.
With five wins over the season in addition to 12 top 5s and 15 top 10s, the 24-year-old has been rightly touted as the series driver. The results contrast sharply with 2020, his rookie Cup season in which he showed relative speed early but frequent inconsistency late.
Nemechek was not sure the move would bear fruit. It does and he now has the chance to win his first NASCAR Championship on Friday night (November 5) at Phoenix Raceway.
âIt has been very valid for sure,â Nemechek said on Thursday’s media day (November 4). âI think making this decision to come back to compete for wins and a championship has definitely been huge. I think for me to be able to execute this and take a bet on myself and come here and win has been huge for me. I enjoyed this year, I smiled a lot, I was happy pretty much the whole year. And that’s a good way to be.
âIt’s a good feeling. And you are certainly not in the dumps or miserable or frustrated and people don’t want to be around you. You’re still having fun, and if you’re not having fun, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it as well. I’ve been told this several times so it’s very validating, very rewarding. Now I just have to finish.
To leave Phoenix with the best trophy in the series, Nemechek will likely have to do something he hasn’t done in these playoffs yet: win.
For as strong as Nemechek started the season, his five wins came in the first 13 races of 2021. Those playoff races were either feast or famine: he finished second at Darlington Raceway, third at Bristol Motor Speedway and fourth at Talladega Superspeedway but finished 22nd at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway, 33rd at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and 39th at Martinsville Speedway.
His No. 4 team will have to rekindle their regular season magic on Friday to celebrate a late-night championship.
âI feel like we were in contention in the playoffs, but we had some mechanical failures,â said Nemechek. âWe were wrecked. This is part of it. But we are always running ahead. We executed, we just didn’t finish where we needed to end up. I feel like I have one of the best teams in the garage. I have the impression that we are always on top to continue like this and I feel good about our chances tomorrow night.
âYeah, the playoffs were a bit tough, but we had some problems in the first round, in the second round. Two mechanical breakdowns. I should have won Talladega. So, I mean, that’s really a lot.
He will also have to beat a triple champion in Matt Crafton to win this first title.
Crafton is the only National Series driver in the sport to win a championship without winning a race. That possibility is on the table again as he pursues his fourth.
“[Friday] at night would be another interesting way to watch all of the Keyboard Warriors turn on their computers, âCrafton said with a smirk. “Oh I love it. I don’t answer that much because sometimes I get in trouble when I answer. So I sit and laugh and I don’t mind at all.”
Ben Rhodes, Crafton’s teammate at ThorSport Racing, finds himself in Championship 4 for the first time in his Truck career. Rhodes got the season off to a good start, winning both the oval course and the road course at Daytona International Speedway.
But victories quickly became a thing of the past. And while he’s tied with Nemechek and Todd Gilliland for most of the series ‘top 10s, Rhodes’ consistency is what brought him to Phoenix with a shot at a title shot.
âWe have lost a lot of races this year,â said Rhodes. âWe won two, which was just great. Still the best season I have ever had in NASCAR for me. The morale is good. I’m just super focused on what’s going on.
âI have a good group of people on our race team. [â¦] And we left the store this week before loading the dumper. And we all kind of toasted there, we sat down and had some beer together and said, âLook, we’ve had a good year. This is the best I have ever had. This is the best you’ve all had so far. You know when we started the season we were kind of like the little engine that could – like we were all new to each other. Some of us lacked experience in our respective positions. And we were very successful with that.
Zane Smith has already tied his top 10 tally from a season ago, but only landed two top five – including his Martinsville win a week ago to lock in.
He believes he’s already proven himself to potential owners, a list that includes Chip Ganassi, who signed Smith as a “back-up, replacement” for Kurt Busch’s departure before Ganassi sold the team. to Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing this summer, Smith confirmed. Thusday.
In his # Championship4 media availability, @ zanesmith77 confirm to @CandiceSpencer and myself that he was signed by Chip Ganassi Racing as a ‘back up, replacement’ for Kurt Busch before the team was sold this summer. #NASCAR
– Zach Sturniolo (@zachstur) November 4, 2021
But Smith said he didn’t know where he would end up in 2022 and didn’t want to know. If nothing is planned, a championship would go a long way in securing next year’s race
âHow do I go about it, I mean, if I didn’t think I belonged, I wouldn’t,â Smith said. âI would do something else. It’s way too many sleepless nights and honestly way too much misery to get through the rough days to hopefully get there, so if I didn’t think I would make me want to put myself through this.
The Lucas Oil 150 starts at 8 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1 Friday night.
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