In a Nutshell: John Hunter Nemechek took an emotional victory in Saturday night’s Drivin’ for Linemen 200 at Gateway Motorsports Park. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet led the entire first stage but didn’t sniff the front of the field again until the final 10 laps.
A late caution provided a last-ditch opportunity, putting Nemechek in position to get back in front with fresher tires. Passing cagey veteran Matt Crafton, he held the top spot for seven of the final eight circuits and earned his first victory of 2017.
Chase Briscoe finished second despite contact with Christopher Bell on the final lap. Former series champs Johnny Sauter and Crafton ended up third and fourth, respectively, while rookie Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.
Who Should Have Won: Chase Briscoe. Just one week removed from missing out on his first career win by mere inches, Briscoe started on the pole for the second time in three races and led the entirety of the second stage. He continued up front, leading 54 circuits in the final stage before losing the top spot during a round of green flag pit stops.
When the yellow flew with 11 laps remaining, Briscoe chose to pull down pit road for four fresh tires. Restarting 13th, he drove through the field and worked his way up to second when the checkered flag flew. But in the end, the loss of track position was just too much to make up.
In total, Briscoe led a race-high 88 laps, more than the 10 circuits combined that he held the top spot at Dover and Texas.
Redemption for NEMCO Motorsports
It would be an understatement to say that 2017 has been difficult for John Hunter Nemechek. Filled with high hopes for the year following a two-win 2016 season, the 20-year-old opened with a solid third-place result at Daytona. But that celebration was short-lived when a crash in Atlanta and problems at Martinsville resulted in back-to-back finishes outside the top 25.
Fast forward to Kansas and there was another glimmer of hope for the No. 8 team in the form of a third-place finish. But those good vibes were short-lived. Charlotte, Dover and Texas brought runs of 22nd, 22nd and 21st. That included back-to-back crashes the last two weeks which decimated their inventory and ratcheted up expenses.
NEMCO was clearly in need of a break.
Enter Gateway. Qualifying on the front row, Nemechek took the top spot before completing the first lap and didn’t relinquish the lead until a round of pit stops at the end of Stage 1. Buried deep in the top 10 after a four-tire stop when many took two, it took all of Stage 2 for Nemechek to work his way back up to third.
For awhile, that’s where it looked like the comeback would end. The field was spread out and looking to follow Matt Crafton, who led at the end of a late-race round of green flag pit stops. But Josh Reaume, with just 11 laps remaining lost power in his No. 50 truck and caused the race’s only caution outside of stage breaks.
That gave Nemechek a chance to rejoin the leaders and restart in the second row. Following a strong restart, the driver of the No. 8 drove around to the lead and never looked back, all the way to Victory Lane.
It was quite a stroke of good fortune for a team that’s needed it. Nemechek couldn’t hold back the tears over the victory as both the difficulties and financial realities of his family-owned team poured out.
“It’s an emotional win. All the hard work that goes in. Everyone works their tails off,” Nemechek said. “We haven’t had the best of luck this year. This is an awesome Father’s Day present for dad and team owner (Joe Nemechek). Not knowing how many more races we’re going to get, this win means a lot.”
Though his emotions were a little more contained, father Joe Nemechek echoed his son’s words.
“We’ve had some great partners come on board but we only have half our season sold,” Nemechek said. “We didn’t know if we were going to go next week or when. It’s just tough because John Hunter has so much talent. He’s going to be a Cup champion one of these days. Right now, we’re just trying to get to the next race.”
It remains to be seen whether NEMCO will even make it to the end of the season with sponsorship questions still looming overhead. But you can bet a trip to Victory Lane is likely to give the team at least a little bit of a boost moving forward.
Todd Gilliland’s Tough Two Races
Todd Gilliland, who has excelled in pretty much anything he’s raced the last few years, made his Truck Series debut two weeks ago at Dover. He ran well, climbing inside the top five for Kyle Busch Motorsports until suspension issues forced him to the garage after just 115 laps.
Moving into Saturday night’s race at Gateway, Gilliland looked forward to getting more track time. Like all rookies, he needs experience to help expand his racing knowledge as he looks to move ahead in the sport.
Once again, the teenager excelled, running inside the top 10 for much of the night until mechanical gremlins bit one more time. A bad shift killed the transmission and forced him to the garage for a disappointing 21st-place result after completing 112 laps.
“It just wouldn’t go into fourth gear right there,” Gilliland said from the garage after emerging from his truck. “I still can’t thank everyone at Kyle Busch Motorsports enough for this fast Pedigree Toyota Tundra. Man, that was my fault. I started shifting, it ground one time and I tried the next time and it wouldn’t go in no matter how hard I pulled it.
“Man, I hate to do this. I need to be finishing these races and learning but I still learned a lot out there. I still can’t thank everyone here enough.”
The good news for the 17-year-old is that he’s got three more chances to gain an education. Gilliland is scheduled to run at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September along with Phoenix International Raceway in November.
- There were two late withdrawals from the Gateway entry list. MDM Racing’s truck was too damaged from Texas, leaving Timothy Peters out of a ride while Stewart Friesen’s team took a few races off to regroup. Some late additions did bring the grid to a total of 30 out of a possible 32 spots. Unfortunately, seven of those 30 drivers were out of the race before the end of the first stage, leaving just 23 competitors prepared to go the distance.
- Noah Gragson qualified seventh but was forced to start in the back of the field after repairing a failed water pump. He worked his way into the top 15 by the end of the first stage but stalled out there until pit stops. Though Gragson never got close to threatening for the lead, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota brought home a respectable ninth-place finish. It marks his fourth straight top-10 result.
- Johnny Sauter and Grant Enfinger got together during practice and were forced to make repairs to their trucks. Both drivers managed to remain in their primary vehicles but lost practice time in the process. You would expect less practice time to affect performance on the track, but both drivers ran inside the top 10 all night. Sauter finished third while Enfinger wasn’t far behind in fifth.
- Three of the top-five finishers Saturday night combined to lead 140 of 150 laps. Race winner Nemechek was out front for 46 laps while runner-up Briscoe held the top spot for 88 circuits. Matt Crafton even broke in and led 16 laps, though he lost the top spot to fresher tires late in the race.
- Grant Enfinger’s fifth-place finish marked his third straight top-five result and his fifth top 10 overall. Slowly but surely, the consistency of being in a full-time ride this season is paying off for the driver of the No. 98 Toyota, who has steadily climbed the standings since finishing 16th at Daytona in February.
Truck Rookie Report
2017 Rookie of the Year Candidates
No. 13 Cody Coughlin
No. 18 Noah Gragson
No. 19 Austin Cindric
No. 24 Justin Haley
No. 29 Chase Briscoe
No. 33 Kaz Grala
No. 49 Wendell Chavous
No. 52 Stewart Friesen
No. of rookies in the race: 7
No. of rookies to finish in the top 10: 5; Chase Briscoe, finished second; Grant Enfinger, finished fifth; Noah Gragson, finished ninth; Justin Haley, finished 10th
Rookie of the Race: Chase Briscoe
Points Update: Johnny Sauter remains the point leader as the regular season reaches its halfway point. Christopher Bell is second, 38 markers back. Matt Crafton sits third in the standings, despite having not yet made a trip to Victory Lane. Rookie Chase Briscoe and Ben Rhodes round out the top five.
Noah Gragson wounds out the top 10 in points over a rideless Timothy Peters.
Up Next: The Camping World Truck Series heads to Iowa Speedway Friday night for their fourth straight weekend of racing. Coverage for the Iowa 200 begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1.