As it turns out, John Hunter Nemechek’s stint as a substitute driver for Front Row Motorsports turned out to be a tryout for a possible seat in 2020, to nobody’s surprise. His performance in the last three races of 2019 was enough to net him an average finish of 23.7 (a 21st-place finish at Texas, a 27th-place at ISM Raceway, and a 23rd-place finish at Homestead), which is quite strong for a driver in his position.
It’s obvious that FRM might not be on the level with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, or even Hendrick Motorsports. They ended the 2019 season with two top-fives and three top-10s among their three Cup Series entries. But for being a solid midpack team, they have pulled off more than one upset. It’s difficult to pick which of their two victories was more memorable – rookie Chris Buescher’s fog-shortened win at Pocono in 2016, or the organization’s first 1-2 finish at Talladega in 2013 with longtime FRM staple David Ragan leading teammate David Gilliland to the finish.
They’re a consistent team prone to the occasional strong finish, and Nemechek is a consistent driver, prone to bringing his car home in one piece and earning a strong run or two. While the NASCAR world will be focusing on the A-Lister rookies (Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell), Nemechek may very well be a dark horse when it comes to the rookie race.
Nemechek seems to understand his position as a rookie and could be the only rookie to act accordingly in the education sense. He knows he’s there to learn and earn respect. Of course, he also knows what’s expected of him should the opportunity for strong run present itself to him.
“That’s my goal,” said Nemechek regarding his expectations for 2020. “Take what the car will give us and if we can increase it by a few spots, then great, but we’re not going to go out there and try to run fifth and wreck it when we have a 10th-place car. Just something that I’ve had to learn the hard way over the past couple years, but overall the opportunity with Front Row is pretty special to put my name in the rookie class with the Big 3.”
This isn’t unlike fellow Cup driver Buescher. When Buescher ran a limited schedule for FRM in 2015, he performed on an impressive level, with zero DNFs and a best finish of 20th in six starts. Buescher went on to pilot the No. 34 entry full-time in 2016, where he scored his lone win and a Playoff appearance.
That doesn’t mean a win, Playoff appearance, or even a Rookie of the Year award is going to be a surefire thing. Nemechek’s work is going to be cut out for him, and he may come up short. But what sets him apart is that he’s aware of this as well and still knows what’s expected of him in the long run.
For what it’s worth, the FRM cars have historically performed well at Daytona and Talladega, with a win at Pocono and a couple of top-10s at Martinsville and Bristol to boot. Nemechek could very well earn a superspeedway win in the No. 38 and make the Playoffs just like his predecessor Buescher if not capitalizing off of a strong run elsewhere. But if he doesn’t, that’s fine too. He knows that the bigger picture is about learning and growing.
Whatever happens in 2020, Nemechek’s career is at a pivotal point. He’s now a NASCAR Cup Series driver. But instead of resting on his laurels, he has a chance to learn and grow in a big way. FRM could be a springboard for Nemechek to do great things in the sport, and if he continues to keep himself in check and use this opportunity to improve, there’s every reason to belief that he will accomplish those goals.