Nemechek leaves Phoenix bittersweet after close-call with Championship 4

Russell LaBounty/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

John Hunter Nemechek didn’t have the best truck at Phoenix Raceway. In fact, he rarely ventured into the top five. But after surviving a chaotic ending to Friday’s Lucas Oil 150 the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoff contender found himself within two laps and one position of a win and a berth in the Championship 4.

But in the end Nemechek fell short, failing to capture the lead from Johnny Sauter and watching helplessly as the defending Truck Series champion drove off to the victory in Arizona.

“I think that’ll probably be the most disappointing second-place finish of my career,” Nemechek said after the race. “So close, yet so far.”

Thanks to a crash at Martinsville Speedway and a failed strategy play at Texas Motor Speedway, Nemechek entered the final race of the Round of 6 in need of a victory to keep his title hopes alive to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

For much of that night that thought proved fleeting. After qualifying sixth, Nemechek spent the first two stages toiling around the middle of the top 10 – tallying finishes of fifth and seventh in the race’s two stages.

Nemechek continued to run around the back half of the field until a caution on Lap 123 of 150 allowed the 20-year-old to come to pit road for fresh rubber and a final round of adjustments.

At the time the move seemed like little more than a last-ditch gamble with a low potential payoff, but then chaos ensued.

Fellow playoff contenders Austin Cindric and Ben Rhodes crashed on the ensuing restart, taking out Matt Crafton with them and forcing a brief red flag. Nemechek took the following green flag in ninth, and quickly rose up to fifth with a bold move to the inside moments before a ludicrous five-wide battle directly behind him led to a vicious crash that forced another lengthy stoppage.

Just when things seemed like they couldn’t go any better for Nemechek, the dominant Kyle Busch Motorsports duo of Christopher Bell and Noah Gragson crashed while battling for the lead, taking out Justin Haley in the process.

After maneuvering through the wreckage Nemechek found himself in second – blessed with a shot at the win he himself admitted he didn’t think he would get 20 laps earlier, saying “To tell you the honest truth, probably not with how far back we were.

“We had a couple really good restarts I was able to go from ninth to fifth in a corner, and then everyone kind of wrecked there and we were able to keep our nose clean and give ourselves a shot. With 20 to go, I would have told you that you were crazy if you would have said that we would finish second.”

Nemechek’s final hurdle came in the form of Sauter – one of the Truck Series’ longest-tenured and best veterans. Sauter used his experience to his advantage, taking the inside on the race’s final restart and driving off with an aggressive move to keep Nemechek’s title hopes from coming to fruition. Nemechek ultimately lost out of the final playoff spot to Cindric, who advanced on points.

“Once Johnny (Sauter) got to clean air, there was really nothing you could do,” Nemechek said afterward. “It’s so hard to pass here. Like Christopher (Bell) was saying, the aerodynamics in the truck are crazy compared to cars from what I hear.”

Afterward, his title bid over by the slimmest of margins, Nemechek summed the night’s experience up as a microcosm of his entire season.

“I think that this kind of explains how our whole year has gone,” he said. “It’s been an up-and-down year. It’s been a rocky start from the first race of the year until this one.

“We’ve had fast trucks every week. We haven’t had the finishes that we’ve needed or that we’ve showed. We’ve had a bunch of mechanical failures this year. We’ve gambled quite a bit and some of it didn’t work out.

“Looking back on it, there’s definitely a lot of things that we could’ve done different,” Nemechek continued. “But with the way that we started the year, to make it to the final six and have a shot at the win to make it to the final four at Homestead definitely means a lot.”

While his dreams of chasing down a Truck Series title this season may be gone, Nemechek isn’t giving up on the year just yet. The Mooresville, N.C. native and his NEMCO Motorsports team intend to arrive at Homestead with a car capable of victory.

“It’s definitely not something that we’re going to hang our head on,” he said. “We’re going to hold our head high with the five guys that we have working in the shop. (sic) The fabulous five will be coming to Homestead, and hopefully we can go get a win there and finish the year strong.”

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