By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On paper, John Hunter Nemechek is listed as a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender in the NASCAR Cup Series. But in the eyes of his Front Row Motorsports teammates Michael McDowell and David Ragan, John Hunter has the advantage over the other rookies.
This is due in most part of John Hunter spending years years in the garage with his father Joe Nemechek, which his teammates view as an absolute benefactor to his racing experience.
McDowell said last Sunday at the media bullpen that John Hunter is as every good as those highly touted rookies because of his garage knowledge as he spent much of his life in the sport with Joe.
“Growing up in the sport and having a family in the sport, he’s been around Cup racing for a long time. He’s been in the garage every weekend since he was a kid,” McDowell said. “I think his experience level or his knowledge is a lot higher than the majority of the rookies that come into the sport just because he grew up in it.
“It’s no different than Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and those guys. They were here every week and they watched every race, every practice and every qualifying. He’s got a lot of experience even though on paper, statistically, he doesn’t. He’s very matured and does a good job. His work ethic is great, so there’s going to be learning curves. Cup racing is hard but at the same time I think he’s prepared for it.”
The 22-year-old drove the final three Cup races for Matt Tifft and impressed car owner Bob Jenkins so much that he gave him a full-time ride this season in the No. 38 Ford Mustang.
Despite running those races, most people are entirely focusing on “The Big Three” consisting of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick. This leaves John Hunter along with Quin Houff and Brennan Poole as true longshots for top rookie honors.
Ragan, who stepped down as a full-time driver after the 2019 season, understands John Hunter’s position as his father, Ken Ragan, competed in Cup throughout the 1980s before David followed his father’s footsteps two decades later.
However, David feels that compared to his rookie year in 2007, the rookies who are coming up to the top level are the best crop of divers the sport has seen due to the technological benefits.
“I think rookies today are a lot more prepared than rookies 10 or 15 years ago with the technology and data we have at our fingertips. The rookies can access a lot of information,” Ragan said. “John Hunter is a winner in other divisions, grew up around the racetrack, he has a father that is still in tune with the race cars and racetracks.
“John Hunter came over last year and did a real nice job and I think he will slide in. He had all off season to spend time with his team and crew chief and engineers to build that little bit of trust that you need to build. I think he is prepared and ready for the opportunity.”
John Hunter, who took over Ragan’s ride this season, said being around the sport for as long as he’s been has made him mentally prepared for the biggest opportunity of his young life, beginning with Sunday’s 62nd Daytona 500.
“Yeah, I think so. I think growing up around it and be a part of it, you have seen the good, bad and ugly. You learn how to handle yourself and not handle yourself in certain situations,” John Hunter said. “Being able to have a radio and listen to the crew guys from the standpoint of the crew chief talking to the engineers to my dad talking on the radio with the spotters and how they communicate, I think that has helped me as a driver.
“Growing up around it and experience the Daytona 500 as a kid following his dad and watching his hero is pretty special to be able to be down here driving in my first Daytona 500 as well.”
John Hunter will now get to feel why as a racing driver, “The Great American Race” is the mecca of NASCAR racing as he’ll start 23rd. The 200-lap event will air live at 2:30pm EST on Fox. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner.