There’s little question Kansas Speedway is the Nemechek family’s favorite NASCAR track.
“Front Row” Joe Nemechek memorably swept the Busch (then Nationwide) Series and NASCAR Cup races at Kansas in 2004 and is still the only driver to pull off the double in the track’s 23-year history.
His son, John Hunter Nemechek, also has two victories at Kansas, winning the 2018 Xfinity race and the 2022 NASCAR trucks fall race.
“It’s time to break the tie,” said John Hunter, who returned to the Xfinity series this year and leads the field with five wins in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota entering Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway.
“Kansas is a racetrack that suits my style. I’ve had fast vehicles there and have always run well there. It’s a matter of keeping it going.”
The Nemecheks are also deadlocked in another category: 20 total NASCAR victories. Joe won four Cup and 16 Xfinity races during a 33-year career, while John Hunter, 26, has won seven Xfinity and 13 trucks races in six years.
Of course, what’s missing from the younger Nemechek’s resume is a Cup victory. And he’ll get the chance to add one in 2024 after it was announced Wednesday night that he has signed a contract for “2024 and beyond” to race the No. 42 Toyota in the Cup series for Legacy Motor Sports.
Nemechek had showed great promise in the Xfinity series in 2018 and 2019, and he moved up to Cup racing in 2020. But he endured a lackluster season with mid-level Front Row Motorsports.
Humbled, he returned to the trucks and Xfinity series, and for the past three years he has performed so well that he was tapped by Legacy for the Cup ride. He replaces Noah Gragson, who was suspended indefinitely earlier this year for inappropriate actions on social media.
“This means a lot to me,” Nemechek told The Star on Wednesday night. “With the gamble of leaving the Cup Series and coming back to the trucks and Xfinity Series, not knowing how long it would take to get back to the top, or not knowing if you’re even going to get back to the top with the gamble, it means that much more.”
Legacy Motor Club, which will switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year for drivers Erik Jones and Nemechek, traces its roots to Richard Petty GMS Motorsports and is co-owned by Jimmie Johnson, giving Nemechek the experience of a combined 14 Cup championships and 283 wins to draw on.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to drive for Jimmie and have The King a part of Legacy Motor Club, too, who are seven-time champions and have a lot of NASCAR Cup victories under their belts,” said Nemechek. “It is huge for not only for myself but to have them to rely on and to ask them questions, but also from an ownership standpoint, to have them as part of the Club.”
Nemechek doesn’t regret the move he made from the security of the Xfinity Series to the intensity the Cup series, where he posted just three top 10s in 36 starts in 2020.
“It was frustrating, in a sense, but I gained a lot of valuable experience for sure,” he said. “It helped me as a race-car driver and as a person. It helped me grow on and off the racetrack. There were times when it was frustrating, just like any season can get with ups and downs, but I attribute that season and the experience I gained to a lot of my success in the trucks series and Xfinity series over the last two years.
“A year of Cup experience is unbeatable. To be able to race around the top guys every week definitely puts you in a better position to know what to do to get good finishing positions. But I would say the biggest thing I learned from taking the step back was to never be afraid and gamble on yourself. If you think that you can do it, go out and prove it.”
Now that his future is settled, Nemechek can concentrate on the immediate task at hand: winning the Xfinity championship when the playoffs begin next week at Bristol.
“That was our goal coming in and the goal remains the same,” he said. “Go win races and hoist the trophy come Phoenix.”
There’s already one Xfinity championship in the Nemechek family’s trophy case, won by Joe Nemechek in 1992 when the series was known as the Busch Grand National Series. Joe’s brother John, for whom John Hunter is named, died from injuries suffered in a crash in a 1997 NASCAR Trucks Race at Homestead, Florida.
While John Hunter is proud of the family legacy in the sport, he doesn’t feel any pressure of being compared to his elders.
“I wouldn’t say it’s extra pressure there, just because of my name,” said Nemechek, who was atop the pit box and in victory lane as a 7-year-old when Joe won the 2004 races at Kansas Speedway. “For me, it’s trying to make a name for myself.
“Being able to grow underneath him and then being able to carry on my uncle’s name is really, really neat. And it is kind of a family legacy that I get to continue to carry on — but at the same time make a name for myself. I want everyone to say, ‘That’s John Hunter’s dad,’ rather than, ‘That’s Joe Nemechek’s son.’”