NASCAR: How a former Cup driver’s gamble could pay off

John Hunter Nemechek, Kyle Busch Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
John Hunter Nemechek, Kyle Busch Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

John Hunter Nemechek’s gamble to leave the NASCAR Cup Series and drop down two levels for 2021 could pay off in the long run.

After an underrated but successful rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 with Front Row Motorsports, John Hunter Nemechek made what many saw as a shocking decision to leave the team for 2021 and drop down to the Truck Series.

Nemechek made the gamble to give up his seat behind the wheel of the #38 Ford to compete for Kyle Busch Motorsports behind the wheel of the #4 Toyota in the upcoming season.

While it does involve the 23-year-old Mooresville, North Carolina native dropping from NASCAR’s highest level down to its third highest level, this is a career move that could pay huge dividends in the long run.

Why? First of all, from a competitive standpoint, it’s not a gamble whatsoever.

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Nemechek will be a championship contender in the Truck Series, whereas in the Cup Series, an average finish of 20th place with a top 25 finish in the standings and an occasional top 10 or top 15 finish would have seemed like a title in the equipment that he had.

With Front Row Motorsports, he simply had no upside. His ability to run at the front would literally be defined by whether or not he could be in the lead pack coming to the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, where a half-second could separate the top 15. Take your pick: if he wins, he wins. If he doesn’t, he may very well be finishing in 14th place — still likely his best finish in many weeks.

But he did give up a ride at the top level of stock car racing, so there is still that huge element of giving something up.

It’s what he hopes to gain from it that could easily make it all worth it.

Nemechek had been associated with Toyota Racing Development earlier in his career, and his move to Kyle Busch’s outfit realigns him with Toyota for at least the 2021 season.

It’s no secret that Toyota’s opportunities at the sport’s top level are limited. There have really only been three full-time Toyota teams in recent years, and two no longer exist.

Furniture Row Racing folded after 2018, and Leavine Family Racing did the same after 2020. Both had technical alliances with Joe Gibbs Racing, the four-car Toyota powerhouse.

New team 23XI Racing, which is co-owned by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, is set to have a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs’s team in 2021 with the goal of becoming just as competitive as the four-car team in due time.

That makes five seats: four at Joe Gibbs Racing, which appear to be set for the foreseeable future with the veteran Hamlin, former champions Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and rising star Christopher Bell, and one at 23XI Racing for Bubba Wallace.

But one thing that Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson has also recently stated is that he didn’t believe any of the organization’s young drivers are ready for Cup rides at this point anyway.

Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones and Daniel Hemric are the three Xfinity Series drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing, the lone full-time team at the sport’s second highest level. Burton and Jones are still young while Hemric is a veteran and has not been a Toyota driver before. He lost his Cup ride with Richard Childress Racing after just one year in 2019.

Nemechek, however, is a proven winner, and he is back behind the wheel of a Toyota for the first time since 2014. He has been competing in NASCAR since he was 16 years old and has secured seven wins in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series despite only spending three full seasons across the two series.

He secured his first Truck Series win at the age of 18 in 2015, before he had ever been a full-time driver, and he won twice in both of his full-time seasons in 2016 and 2017. He also secured his first Xfinity Series victory before he had ever been a full-time driver in 2018.

With a season of Cup Series experience under his belt now, and a solid one at that, he gives Toyota a young driver who they can absolutely rely on in the Cup Series in the future.

If 23XI Racing expand to two cars like many expect them to within the next few seasons, Nemechek’s success in the #4 Toyota could go a long way to landing him a competitive Cup seat he would have had no chance of landing had he opted to stick around for another year with Bob Jenkins’s team in 2021.

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Nemechek is set to make his Kyle Busch Motorsports debut on Friday, February 12 in the NextEra Energy 250 at Daytona International Speedway. This race is set to be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1 beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET.