Front Row Motorsports is on a roll early in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season. Rookie driver John Hunter Nemechek has opened some eyes recently with several consistent strong performances. The No. 38 Ford has vaulted from 26th in points before the shutdown to 20th in the standings. Nemechek and his Seth Barbour-led team sit a mere 56 points out of 16th just over a third of the way through the regular season.
The good thing for the team is that Nemechek has six victories in his last 78 starts in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series. The current package in the Cup series races a lot like the Truck Series package that Nemechek has had so much success in.
Teammate Michael McDowell has also shown improvement this season. Through nine races in 2019, McDowell sat 29th in the standings. This year he’s 23rd and has improved his point standings by five positions since NASCAR started the season back up again.
The organization has made the playoffs just once in their existence, after Chris Buescher won at Pocono Raceway in 2016. The rain-shortened win got them into the dance but they were far from a contender. The team is still a long way from where they want to be but they’re certainly changing the narrative.
That got us thinking – will 2020 be the breakout year for Front Row Motorsports? Is this the year they make the playoffs based on their point standings and are a legitimate contender? Our writers Adam Cheek and Vito Pugliese debate.
All Eyes on John Hunter
John Hunter Nemechek has been getting the most out of his equipment – underfunded or otherwise – for years.
His performance so far in 2020 has been so solid that, after just nine races, he sits 20th in points. Sandwiched between Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher and JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th and 21st, respectively), Nemechek has put himself in a prime position to compete for a playoff spot.
Nemechek’s first season in NASCAR competition was 2013, driving for his father Joe Nemechek’s small, self-owned NEMCO Motorsports in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, where he made just two starts.
The next season marked the North Carolina native’s first major season in the series, running 10 races in the renumbered No. 8 truck. He scored six top-10 finishes, crossing the line seventh or higher in those races.
From 2015 to 2018, Nemechek scored at least one win each year, only running full time in 2016 and 2017. The result? Six total wins, 27 top-five finishes, 42 top-10s. In 82 total starts, he finished in the top 10 more than half the time, adding two poles and leading 554 laps for good measure.
He also scored 11 top-10 finishes in 18 Xfinity Series starts in 2018, winning one race for Chip Ganassi Racing. 2019 wasn’t as kind to Nemechek in Xfinity, but he still recorded 19 top-10 finishes in his first full-time season in the series.
And just last season, he substituted for Matt Tifft in the season’s final three races, driving Front Row’s No. 36 Ford. He didn’t finish inside the top 20 in any of the races, but ran well enough to be a radar blip going into 2020.
He’s become more than that already. Just nine races into the season, he’s begun to pick up the pace.
After an 11th at Daytona’s wreckfest and some uninspiring finishes through Fontana, Nemechek caught fire when the season resumed, almost as if the coronavirus pandemic stopping the season lit a fire under the rookie.
Nemechek finished ninth in the first race back at Darlington after starting 34th, although just a few days later his No. 38 spun twice early in the race and never recovered, finishing 35th.
The next week and a half, though, showed just how competitive Nemechek could be – he recorded a solid 16th-place finish at the Coca-Cola 600, following that up with back-to-back 13th-place efforts at the second Charlotte race and Bristol a few days later. Nemechek also ran in the top 10 in portions of both races.
That aforementioned 13th place is also Front Row Motorsports’ best finish at any race on the Charlotte oval.
There’s also something to be said for Nemechek’s performance elevating the team as a whole. Both Nemechek and teammate Michael McDowell scored top-15 finishes at Daytona and Bristol this year, and each driver has five top-20 finishes so far in 2020.
Front Row doesn’t have the worst equipment in the field, not by a long shot, but there is a definite discrepancy between their Ford Mustangs and the blue ovals that Stewart-Haas Racing puts on track.
The team has been in existence since the mid-2000s and has just two wins to its name. The first came courtesy of David Ragan, who Nemechek replaced, at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013. Ragan and teammate David Gilliland worked together on the final lap, finding their way to the front at the right time. FRM’s second win was in 2016, when Chris Buescher stayed out at Pocono Raceway and was in front when the red flag flew for fog, winning the race and securing himself a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Nemechek, who turns 23 on June 11, will have a fight on his hands. Besides Buescher, the other drivers currently standing in the way of a playoff spot include Austin Dillon, William Byron and Tyler Reddick.
It’ll be a battle with those around him, but the son of Front Row Joe is on his way to competing for a playoff spot and being a threat to win races this season. He’s doing what he did for years with NEMCO – getting the best out of lower-level equipment. Who knows what he could do in top-tier cars in the Cup Series?
If the past few races are any indication, look for that No. 38 to reel off more strong efforts and be a contender in the postseason. – Adam Cheek
Not Quite Ready for Prime Time
John Hunter Nemechek and the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team have been on one of the brightest spots this year – but they don’t seem to get the recognition for how they’ve been running as of late. Part of this has been due to finishes that aren’t representative of his in-race performance. For a rookie driver with a smaller operation, he’s performing beyond admirably. His last three finishes are encouraging for sure – but does that mean this team is ready for playoff talk?
Not so fast.
To be fair, this is not the year to be trying to accurately judge the performance envelope of teams. A whirlwind of five races in two weeks is not what the series is used to, and some teams – even the larger, more well-funded operations – might have to find their footing these first few weeks back. Front Row Motorsports is a team that definitely made the most of their COVID-19 imposed sabbatical. Back to back 13th-place finishes in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and at Bristol last weekend shows they aren’t a one-trick pony, running solidly at Talladega and Daytona only.
That said, the end of the Coca-Cola 600 got jumbled with four laps to go, and he was slated to finish 19th had it not been for William Byron’s blown tire. Bristol was a solid race for the operation, as it’s a track where some of the smaller operations can muster up a solid run – as evidenced by a 14th place finish by teammate Michael McDowell and a top 10 for Bubba Wallace.
While encouraging for a rookie driver and a team that seems to be finding its footing early, the threat I see for them is what happens when some of the other teams ratchet up their performance in the coming weeks. Currently 20th in points, it is more than likely that, to make the playoffs, Nemecheck is going to have to win a race. Jimmie Johnson in 15th has clearly found his footing, and the No. 48 is showing speed it hasn’t had in almost three years, while Byron seems poised to be a perpetual top 10 threat.
Behind him in the standings are notable names such as Ryan Newman, following his harrowing incident coming to the checkered flag at the Daytona 500 – a race he very well should have won. Matt Kenseth is just getting acclimated to the No. 42 machine after not racing at all in 2019 and filling in intermittently in 2018. While both drivers did miss a few races, a win or a string of strong finishes through the summer stretch paired with a few missteps by the No. 38 team would make it plausible that they could leap frog Nemechek and prevent him from making it on points as well. And that’s not even mentioning the other drivers currently ahead of him.
By no means is this an indictment of the two-car team – it is simply understanding that the established teams, championship drivers and crew chiefs could upend their efforts.
That said, let’s look ahead to Talladega in two weeks. The Front Row Motorsports team got their first win here back in 2013 with David Ragan. This was a year prior to the win-and-in format for the championship, but is likely the best change for this team to score a win – at the very least a solid top-five finish, maybe even a stage win. But wait! There’s also Daytona as the final race before the playoffs being at Darlington. Big Ones and a strong superspeedway program could shake things up. An 11th-place finish at the Daytona 500 this year was a decent showing for the first-year combination – and Nemecheck was running seventh prior to the overtime restart. Might we see a last race rally by the rookie driver and underdog team to pull out another playoff appearance – which first made the cut in 2016 when Chris Buescher caught a Pocono fog out just right?
It would be a great story, an amazing accomplishment and is entirely possible – just not probable.
Keep in mind while these great runs are encouraging, there are still the inevitable rookie wrecks, late race speeding penalties and poor pit-stops to deal with. There haven’t been enough races this season to really run into these kinds of things that some teams have already experienced and that are simply the realities of a seven month long regular season. Sure, we’re on a bit tighter timeline for the 2020 season, but that can also work against a small team and rookie driver, as they don’t have as many races to rebound or overcome a poor run or two. There really isn’t any room for error, unless they happen to win a race.
John Hunter Nemechek certainly has a bright future ahead of him, and the No. 38 team, which has been a work in progress for a decade, is just starting to become a legitimate top 15-20 car weekly. They have the driver to build around to take things to the next level – but maybe not quite this year. – Vito Pugliese