AVONDALE, Ariz. — All season long, John Hunter Nemechek was the favorite for the Camping World Truck Series championship. Nothing changed ahead of Friday night’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
But not even one lap in, the No. 4 team had a left front tire rub, after contact with Kris Wright. Five laps later, Nemechek blew his left front tire, and went two laps down after repair.
“Pretty disappointing when somebody runs into you getting into Turn 1 and it ruins your night,” Nemechek said. “I got the fence, someone hit my left side and it destroyed the truck.”
— NASCAR Camping World Trucks (@NASCAR_Trucks) November 6, 2021
Quickly, Nemechek got one of his two laps back via the free pass on lap 12, as the caution flew for Lawless Alan wrecking out of Turn 4.
The remainder of the opening stage had no cautions, and other trucks were put a lap down. The No. 4 team elected to not take the wave around to get back on the lead lap at the conclusion of the stage, thinking there would be a quick caution to get the free pass.
“We couldn’t make it on fuel at that point,” Eric Phillips, crew chief of the No. 4 car said following the race. “You saw all those guys go back a lap down quick. I knew we could drive back to the top 10, you’re just hoping you can get a caution sooner. If we get a caution, we’re the lucky dog anyway. If you go two laps down, you’re done.”
Ultimately, the entire second stage didn’t have a caution. Nemechek drove to 27th, but was still the third car off the lead lap. On lap 100, though, Tate Fogleman was stopped on the backstretch to bring out the caution. That put Nemechek back on the lead lap.
Still, Nemechek had to restart from the rear of the field. With a green flag field to the race, the No. 4 methodically made its way through the field to seventh. Come the checkered flag, that was still four trucks shy of getting to Ben Rhodes, who crossed the finish line as the 2021 Truck Series champion.
Nemechek’s early season dominance — winning five of the opening 13 races of the year — ended with a third-place points position to show for it. That’s entirely disappointing for the No. 4 team.
“We had probably one of the fastest trucks tonight, but nothing to show for it,” Nemechek stated. “I feel like if we could have got [the lap] back sooner, we would have had even a better shot. Just needed more laps at the end; I was running down Zane [Smith] and Ben quite a bit.
“It’s more frustrating knowing we were so fast and nothing to show for it. I thought we were one of the best playoff trucks, if not the best playoff truck. If we could have had track position I thought we could have been battling [Chandler Smith] for the win just from lap time standpoint. That’s what hurts the most.”
Since 2016, the Truck Series championship has been decided by a one-race shootout for arguably the four best teams in the playoffs. Phillips, who took over for crew chief of the No. 4 truck this year, knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk.
“It’s a product of this format,” Phillips said as to how the No. 4 team lost the title. “At the end of the day, we brought a really fast Tundra; probably had one of the fastest trucks here, if not the fastest with all the damage that’s on it. All the guys at the track and John Hunter did an awesome job and unfortunately this winner-take-all format with one race, that’s what happens.
“We never got a shot to race with those guys because of the early flat tire. At the end of the day, we had a fast truck and drove from the back to the front multiple times, basically every time we went from the back to the front and were able to do. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t our night tonight.”
Nemechek ends his return year to the Truck Series with a handful of wins, 12 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes, with an average result of 9.8.
— Dustin Albino (el-bee-no) (@DustinAlbino) November 6, 2021
And despite coming up short, it wasn’t a wasted year.
Nemechek said, “I’ve gotten asked the question of, ‘Is this a failure if we didn’t win the championship?’ Now that I’m there, no it wasn’t a failure. We had speed all year, we were one of the favorites every single week.”