Mention the name John Hunter Nemechek, and the first thing that comes to mind is not that he’s a two-time winner in the Camping World Truck Series or at 18 years, eight months and 16 days, the youngest driver to win in one of NASCAR’s top three...
Typically, when the name John Hunter Nemechek is mentioned, it’s followed by, “Why hasn’t some manufacturer signed him up yet?”
In today’s NASCAR, it’s difficult for a young driver to gain traction without support from a factory or a full-time sponsor. Despite the second-generation driver’s success, John Hunter has neither.
A family of racers
Nemechek comes from a family whose passion is racing, but that’s not enough these days. There’s a delicate balance that has to be struck between old-school competition and modern-day expense.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” team owner and J.H’s father, Joe Nemechek, said after last Saturday’s win at Atlanta. “I still consider our team an underdog, team but it’s so gratifying to have a win.
“We have a lot of folks out there trying to find sponsorship for our truck. I ask myself all the time, ‘how can a kid who’s so good — knows how to talk, knows how to act, knows what’s important — how can we not have a sponsor?’ I haven’t quite figured that out yet…a lot of good people are behind us but we still have to get a main sponsor on this truck every week.”
John Hunter is the whole package
Nemechek’s situation is curious. He’s extremely articulate and even-tempered, particularly for a teenager. And since Nemechek won his first truck race at Chicagoland nine races ago, only former truck champion Matt Crafton and series veteran Timothy Peters have captured two W’s in the interim.
Still, Nemechek, who is currently fourth in the truck standings — ahead of both Crafton and Peters — likely is locked into the series’ new Chase format with his win.
“Being locked into the Chase is something you have to do,” Nemechek said. “You have to run up front. You have to contend for wins. Luckily we got out win here in the second race of the year.
“Now we can go out and run as hard as we can each and every week and just go for wins and not worry about points.”
But with a month off from truck competition, it’s out of sight and out of mind for many of the drivers who compete on that tour. Even for a driver with a future as bright as Nemechek.
So what does a kid with two wins, 10 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes in 32 truck races have to do to get noticed? And after Nemechek’s potential is recognized, what manufacturer has the availability and resources to nurture his talent?
Toyota has excelled with its development program, expediting the progress of Rico Abreu, Christopher Bell, William Byron, Erik Jones, Ben Rhodes and Daniel Suarez. Abreu and Suarez are the senior statesmen among the group at 24, but overall Toyota’s up-and-comers’ average age is 20.6.
Toyota has more drivers than seats at the Cup level for this latest crop of young talent, even if the manufacturer expanded its support — and even if Furniture Row Racing, as expected, adds another Cup team next year.
So what about the graying Chevy camp?
Jeff Gordon signed off last season. Tony Stewart will bid adieu at Homestead. Can 40-somethings Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. be far behind? Sure, Chase Elliott, 20, shows promise but the next developmental driver in the Xfinity ranks, Ty Dillon, is already 24. Austin Dillon turns 26 in April.
When Chip Ganassi Racing recruited Kyle Larson, now 23, he was expected to be the future of the company. His first two years have been a struggle, hopefully the third year will be a charm.
With Stewart-Haas Racing moving to Ford, will Cole Custer, 18, stay the course with Chevy at JRM or will the Blue Oval sport a new Xfinity team in 2017?
Next year, Kurt Busch, 37, returns to Ford, where he won the manufacturer’s last Cup title in 2004. He joins fellow champion Brad Keselowski, 31, and Joey Logano, 25. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with Team Penske’s success — particularly since Logano has 11 wins in the last two seasons — or its youth which also includes protege Ryan Blaney, 22. The other young guns in the Ford pipeline are 23-year-old Chris Buescher and his former Xfinity Series teammate Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, 22.
Buescher enjoyed nine ARCA wins before the age of 20, but Jack Roush had suspended his truck operation by then so it’s hard to gauge where he would stand up against better funded teams. Wallace was 20 before he earned his first truck victory, but won four more races in his second full season.
Roush has been more patient with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 28, who has three top fives, 12 top 10s and one pole in 114 starts and Trevor Bayne, 25, who has extended his Cup career for six seasons on his 2011 Daytona 500 win —his only top five in 96 starts. RFR has also offered support to Kyle Weatherman, 19, and Ty Majeski, 20. But Buescher certainly has the inside line should Stenhouse or Bayne be replaced or or should Greg Biffle retire.