LONG POND — It has been anything but a smooth ride to the 2023 season for John Hunter Nemechek.
Four NASCAR Xfinity Series seasons from 2018-22 generated just a pair of victories. A two-season stint in the NASCAR Cup Series from 2019-20 never really found its footing, leading to a return to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Xfinity Series.
Nemechek identified those past stumbles as valuable lessons at a press conference Friday at Pocono Raceway for Explore the Pocono Mountains 225.
“I made that move, and it might have been a little too soon for me, but I learned a lot from that,” Nemechek said. “It made me a better race car driver. It made me a better person. It made me stronger mentally, for sure, through ups and downs.
“I feel like I can win races with the teams and organizations that I was with in the Truck Series and now in the Xfinity Series. I don’t want to put myself in the position where I feel like I can’t win races with an organization.”
Win races, he has. A series-high four, to be exact.
As a result, Nemechek leads the Xfinity Series in points (730) for the first time in his career. Leading 21.6% of the laps he’s completed this season, Nemechek has further bolstered his season resume with 10 finishes inside the top five and 15 inside the top 10.
Saturday’s Pocono race will serve as something of a homecoming for Nemechek, offering an opportunity to potentially extend his 33-point edge. The track has brought good fortune to the No. 20 Toyota driver, picking up five top-10 finishes — including a win — at various levels since 2016.
“Ever since I’ve came here, I feel like I’ve excelled here. I don’t know the reason for it,” Nemechek said. “This place is based on a lot of momentum, carrying speed around the corners, making the straightaways longer. I guess that suits my driving style a little bit. It goes back to some of the race cars that I grew up driving.”
On Saturday, Nemechek seeks his third consecutive win. Currently locked into the playoffs over the final seven races, emerging victorious from Pocono would all but guarantee him as a serious championship contender — a feat which could serve as a launching pad back to the Cup Series.
Still, even as he continues blossoming into a big-time series player, Nemechek is sidestepping questions about his future in favor of staying focused on the present.
“I love the last three years of winning races at the Truck level and the Xfinity level. Hopefully, one day, I can do that in the Cup Series level, but for me, it’s all heads down and focus on trying to win this championship,” Nemechek said. “I’ve come up short from winning a championship so far in my career, so whatever that takes, for me whatever happens in the future is going to happen for a reason. So, you just have to live every day and continue to get better and go race every single weekend.”
Winning a championship would mark the latest example of Nemechek following in the footsteps of his father, Joe, who won the title in 1992 when the Xfinity Series was known as Busch Grand National. Moreover, a win for Nemechek this weekend would tie his dad’s NASCAR career win total at 20. Joe Nemechek has four Cup and 16 Busch wins; John Hunter Nemechek has six Xfinity and 13 Truck Series victories.
While he is cognizant of his family’s looming legacy, Nemechek’s aim is to establish a legacy of his own.
“I think that there is no real added pressure there, just because of my name. I think for me it’s trying to make a name for myself,” Nemechek said. “I want everyone to say ‘that’s John Hunter’s dad,’ rather than ‘that’s Joe Nemechek’s son.’ ”
Nemechek finished fifth in Xfinity qualifying Friday afternoon at 166.834 mph. The Xfinity Series’ Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 race will begin Saturday at 5:30 p.m.