By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS – As proven the past two weeks, you just can’t keep John Hunter Nemechek down. Literally and figuratively.
While it was hometown hero Riley Herbst who played spoiler and cruised to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second-generation driver was the best of the rest in a day that began with Déjà vu.
The Alsco Uniforms 302 marked back-to-back races where Nemechek was unable to qualify and had to start 38th due to separate mechanical failures following practice in Vegas and Charlotte. Once the green flag flew, the driver of the No. 20 had a windshield full of rear bumpers and an inferno raging within.
By virtue of tenacity and raw speed, Nemechek effortlessly raced his way into the top-10 at the end of the opening 45-lap segment. He actually wound up with the third-most stage points earned (13) among Playoffs drivers and third-most on the day overall (48) on the heels of his fifth runner-up finish of the season.
Obviously, a nice points day and podium finish make for an impressive outing. But for Nemechek, the most exhilaration he got out of this race was going video-game mode and passing 19 cars in four laps.
“Not that I was counting or anything,” Nemechek said. “Proud of the effort by this whole team. Our Pye Barker Toyota GR Supra was really fast today, (but) just didn’t have enough for the No. 98. If a guy is going to win, I’m just glad it’s not a (Playoffs) guy – if it’s not us.”
To say Nemechek’s second-place finish in Vegas was a statement would be valid, but it’s also something he’s done consistently the entire season: lay down the hammer and maximize his days. That’s how he’s gotten into the favorable position he is with two races remaining until Phoenix.
However, the current string of success for Nemechek in the Playoffs and beyond has been nothing short of spectacular.
In the Playoffs alone, the driver for Joe Gibbs Racing boasts a 3.5 average finish with a win at Texas Motor Speedway. If you expand this sample size to six races, Nemechek has two victories, five podium finishes and a lowest finish of eighth (which came last weekend) for a third-place average in that stretch.
By racking up a season-best seven victories and 23 top-10s (16 top-fives) – on top of 10 stage wins – Nemechek has amassed a bountiful 47-point lead over the cutoff going into the second race of the Round of 8.
In total, he gained 10-points on the day and has a 21-point advantage over Justin Allgaier going into Homestead-Miami Speedway. While he may not have had anything for Herbst and his near-15-second margin of victory, Nemechek will gladly settle for a runner-up finish after starting the race from the rear … again.
“We made some points up today and I’m looking forward to Homestead next week,” Nemechek said. “It’s nice, but you can never be comfortable. You always have to be pushing and can’t take anything for granted. Those are there for a reason and I’m glad we have them, but overall just trying to build on it.”