The path to the NASCAR Cup Series has been a winding one for John Hunter Nemechek. Grinding out some wins in the Truck Series for a family-owned operation led to some starts in the XFINITY Series with Chip Ganassi Racing. He won a race for CGR in 2018, but he ended up with GMS Racing last year after Ganassi tabbed Ross Chastain as his driver. Nemechek led GMS to its best season at the XFINITY level, but that team decided to close up shop in the offseason.
For a time, it seemed Nemechek would be without a steady ride for 2020, but after Matt Tifft suffered a seizure late last year and was forced to relinquish his seat for Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek made his Cup debut in a three-race stint as his substitute. Despite performing well, he still didn't have a clear path to a ride until fellow Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan announced he was retiring from full-time competition.
With Tifft's unfortunate medical situation and Ragan out of the picture, Nemechek was selected to drive the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford for the entire 2020 season. He will join a loaded rookie class, but as he tries to prove that he belongs in NASCAR's top series, what exactly can fantasy owners expect out of JHR?
If you take a deep dive into Nemechek's performance in the XFINITY Series in the GMS No. 23 last year, his ability to "find" speed behind the wheel becomes clear. Credit once again to Motorsports Analytics for the data. Nemechek finished 2019 with the sixth-best Production in Equal Equipment Ratio (PEER) despite driving a car that ranked outside the Top 10 in Central Speed. He also ranked fifth in Surplus Passing Value.
Nemechek's restart numbers stand out, as well. Not only did he rank third in retention rate from the preferred groove, but he also ranked second in retention rate from the non-preferred groove. Add it all up, and we are talking about a driver who can get a little but extra out of his car, gain track position on his own and protect his track position on restarts. That's the total package.
Although we don't have a huge sample size, Nemechek showed himself to be a versatile driver, especially in the Truck Series. Among his six Truck wins are a pair of victories at 1.5-mile ovals, a short track win at Iowa, a flat track win at Martinsville and a road course win.
Nemechek has an attacking style behind the wheel, and while his aggression is no doubt one of the main reasons he has been able to overachieve in a mid-level and lower-tier equipment, it does have some negative consequences. According to Motorsports Analytics, Nemechek led all XFINITY regulars with a Crash Rate of 0.58 last year.
Yes, he kept his nose clean during his three Cup starts, but over the course of a full season, a driver's true personality is going show itself. Can Nemechek find a balance between aggression and patience? If he starts crashing on a regular basis, it will not only hurt his fantasy appeal, but it will make it even harder for both he and his race team to grow and improve.
Front Row Motorsports will never be confused with a powerhouse organization, but among the lower-budget teams, FRM stacks up well. Ragan, Tifft and Michael McDowell were all able to challenge for Top 25s on a weekly basis last season, and Ragan and McDowell were able to sneak into the Top 20 in races when there was a bit of attrition.
In his three races for FRM last year, Nemechek compiled a 23.7 average finish, finishing 21st at Texas and 23rd at Homestead. That mark would have been the best among the FRM drivers in 2019, and the fact that he logged Top 25s in both his starts at mile-and-a-half ovals, the most common track type on the schedule, is particularly encouraging.
Based on his brief foray into the Cup Series at the end of last year and his performance in the XFINITY Series for a mid-level team, you have to like Nemechek's chances of keeping his FRM team solidly inside the Top 25 most weeks. The importance of restarts with NASCAR's latest rules package also figures to play to his strengths. Throw in the fact that he hasn't even turned 23 yet, and there is probably plenty of untapped potential still to be unleashed.
I don't think it is a stretch to say that Nemechek could carry the banner for FRM in his rookie year. At worst, I think he will be a useful source of cap relief at the DFS sites, especially when he qualifies outside the Top 25. He could also be a worthwhile sleeper in deeper season-long leagues or a sneaky source of cap relief in season-long, salary cap-based games.