John Hunter Nemechek is ready for his opportunity at a title
With a shot to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) John Hunter Nemechek is ready to race and ready to finish out his personal best NASCAR season by hoisting a trophy.
And he doesn’t take the opportunity for granted after a heart-stopping penultimate Playoff race last weekend.
Nemechek, 24, who drives the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, was wrecked out of last Saturday’s race at Martinsville Speedway just after the halfway point and forced to watch the remainder of the event on television – hoping his points lead would be enough buffer to advance him to this week’s Championship 4 Round.
It was. And now Nemechek’s focus is clearly set on the exclamation point to a big-time year.
“It definitely was stressful, nerve-wracking, kind of every emotion I guess,” Nemechek said during Thursday’s Camping World Truck Series Championship 4 Media Day.
“A helpless feeling sitting there on the sidelines not being able to do anything about your position.”
“It definitely sucked,” he said, conceding he paced inside his team hauler as the race completed. Ultimately, he had just enough of a point-cushion to qualify for Friday’s Championship 4 along with Ben Rhodes, three-time series champion Matt Crafton and Zane Smith.
Going forward, Nemechek said he was hopeful Friday’s night race would include an increased amount of competitive “respect” for the four drivers racing for a title. He acknowledged that the series is a major stepping-stone for young drivers trying to make a name for themselves and advance up through the ranks.
And he insisted, “you can’t change the past,” referring to an aggressive move by a young driver, not in Playoff contention, last week that wrecked Nemechek out of the Martinsville, Va. race.
“In the end, I was that young guy at one point, coming in and not knowing any better than just to go out and race everybody just as hard and I expect that when we race tomorrow and I expect that in all three series, everyone is going to race each other super hard,” Nemechek said. “The guys that aren’t in the Playoffs are still out there to win a race.”
Nemechek emphasized it was up to each driver to know who they were racing around and the motives of other drivers. His motive at this point in his career, he reiterated, was rather simple,
“Mine, is just go race,” said Nemechek, who acknowledged his team owner, two-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch reminded him, “It’s more about mindset going in and we know what we have to lose.”
Naming a favorite is a toss-up among Camping World Truck Championship 4
None of the four championship contenders was prepared to declare a “favorite” among them. When it comes to the one-mile Phoenix Raceway, they all have compelling cases to consider themselves trophy worthy.
And with a series-best five wins, Nemechek acknowledged there’s a certain target on his back this week. None of these four – Nemechek, Rhodes, Smith or Crafton has won previously at Phoenix. In fact Smith, who earned his Championship 4 opportunity with a “walk-off” victory last weekend at Martinsville, Va. boasts the best average finish at Phoenix; runner-up in his only start last year.
Crafton, 45, who has 20 starts at Phoenix, has the top average finish (10.0) among those four with multiple starts, followed by Rhodes (10.3) and Nemechek (13.7).
Crafton, a three-time series champion from California who has won late model races at Phoenix, was asked if he would be okay claiming the 2021 championship trophy without winning a truck series race during the season. Without missing a beat, Crafton said, “at the end, of the day I’ll sleep just fine.”
Rhodes is Ready with a capital “R”
ThorSport Racing driver Rhodes was talkative, upbeat and energetic Thursday afternoon, insisting he wishes the Championship race was immediate.
“For one, I’ve got some really, really awesome people around me,” Rhodes said. “We’ve got a brand-new truck going into this race and I’d say myself as a driver, I’m just a little more experienced and feeling, I’d say, more mature about how I’m handling things, maybe.
“I don’t feel different as a driver, but I know the situation I’m in is different. I feel like we’re’ going to have better success with the equipment we’ve brought and the people I have around me are really, really good. I’m just ready to hop in the truck and do it.”
Says he hasn’t “decompressed” from last week’s wild Playoff Round of 8 elimination race at Martinsville and that his blood pressure may actually be higher as he prepares for his first championship opportunity. The driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota says he’s more “relaxed than ever” and more focused on this one race than any he’s ever competed in before. He has two top-five finishes at Phoenix and his overall 9.6 average finish on the 2021 season is best among the four championship contenders.
Although Rhodes, 24, acknowledged there are just some things he can’t prepare for, he feels good that the team has done everything necessary to give him his best shot at a title. He was clearly upbeat and had put plenty of thought into Friday night’s race.
“I don’t want to be the person that has to do a dirty move to get the win, that’s not me,” Rhodes said. “I want to have the pace and straight up win it, just wear them out, just dominate it or straight out, out-smart them on a restart and just run away with it, that would be really cool too.”
“I’ve waited all week and now I just want to be at the race track.” Rhodes added.
Zane Smith carries a Truck load of confidence to Phoenix
Smith is one driver who couldn’t be happier to have the NASCAR championship venue move from its longtime venue in Homestead, Fla. to Phoenix. A California native the 22-year-old expects a lot of family trackside Friday night to cheer him on.
“It’s definitely special,” Smith said of racing for a title at Phoenix in Thursday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Championship 4 Media Day.
His win last week at Martinsville Speedway in the Playoffs Round of 8 elimination race propelled him into the Championship season finale and the driver of the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet is quite confident that the hard road he conquered has actually made him most prepared for this high-stress weekend.
“I feel like I have more momentum than anybody,” Smith said. “I feel like wins and momentum in this sport are huge. Just once you get one, they come so much easier. Winning is as contagious as losing is, that’s how I look at it, at least.”
Smith led 48 laps and finished second to eventual season champion Sheldon Creed in last year’s race.
— NASCAR Wire Service —