By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Darlington Raceway is typically mean on Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders, especially when a driver starts deep in the field. John Hunter Nemechek wasn’t one of those rookies as he worked from the 34th starting position to scoring a ninth-place result for his maiden NASCAR Cup Series top-10 in Sunday’s The Real Heroes 400.
Although he was two spots behind the highest finishing rookie Tyler Reddick, Nemechek’s eighth career Cup race was a tremendous surprise as Front Row Motorsports hasn’t scored a top-10 on a non-superspeedway track since Chris Buescher finished fifth at Bristol in August 2016.
Nemechek changed all of that Sunday as it marked FRM’s first-ever top-10 at Darlington in the team’s 17th season. In fact, out of the 20 top-10s the team has had, it’s only the fourth time they’ve done this outside of Daytona and Talladega.
A day removed from a breakthrough performance on the sport’s highest level, Nemechek described that a top-10 for the Bob Jenkins owned team meant a lot as he felt the No. 38 SCAG Power Equipment Ford Mustang has had speed all season.
Despite the confidence of having better cars than what he ran in the last three races of the 2019 season, the entire team had no expectations coming to the treacherous South Carolina venue.
“We just kind of had the mindset to run every lap and learn the most that we possibly could, and while doing that we made the right adjustments all day,” said Nemechek. “We stayed on top of the race track and we kind of ran our own race and it led to us running top 15 most of the day, which is a really great accomplishment for myself and Front Row Motorsports for my first time being at Darlington in a Cup car and just trying to learn.”
At a track Nemechek only competed once in the Xfinity Series last year, where he ended up 21st for GMS Racing, the biggest role of accomplishing a top-10 was indeed his strong communications with crew chief Seth Babour and the entire No. 38 squad.
Nemechek commented that Barbour, the engineers and his FRM pit crew did a stellar job during the 293-lap race, which led to the team snapping the long top-10 drought on a non-superspeedway.
“It was a full team effort and we stayed on top of it, so it was definitely a great day and something to be proud of for us,” said Nemechek. “I think that’s Front Row’s first top 10 finish on a non-superspeedway in almost four years, so it’s pretty amazing to have that accomplishment and hopefully we can continue to have the momentum roll our way, but it came down to the final restart and we had our car tuned up for the end.
“I was hoping we were gonna have a couple more laps. I think we could have got Reddick and Erik Jones, but, overall, a solid day. I’m looking forward to going back to Darlington on Wednesday.”
Due to the how mean the track is on equipment, the man 22nd in points (10 markers behind Reddick in the ROTY standings) won’t bring the same car for the 228-lap race.
“Darlington is really rough on equipment as far as with the sand and everything in the race track being so abrasive, so we’re definitely gonna have to tune it up,” said Nemechek. “Even though the car was clean, it didn’t have any scratches on it, it was very well pitted out from all the sand and what-not.”
Additionally, Nemechek felt that not having any sessions beforehand gave FRM an opportunity to run well, but now with a race under everyone’s belt, Wednesday’s race will see the bigger teams rise to the occasion.
“I definitely feel like from the advantage standpoint, I don’t necessarily know if the bigger teams will have more of the advantage or if we’re gonna have the advantage. With not having practice or anything, it’s definitely, I feel like it gives us a little bit of a chance,” said Nemechek.
“With Front Row Motorsports and us having two cars we can learn off of each other, but when you’re racing against big teams that have four cars, you can almost come to the race track with four different setups and see which one works best, and then all the cars can kind of trend to that setup, whereas with two it’s hard to learn and hard to gain that many notes during the whole time, so I feel like going back some of the bigger teams are probably gonna step their game up.
“We just have to do the same and we just have to stay focused on the task at hand and we’re gonna go back with the same mindset of running all the laps and just try to put us in position to have a good finish.”
Nemechek will start 12th in Wednesday’s Toyota 500K at Darlington as the race will air live at 7:30 pm EST on FS1.