By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A host of people were surprised when the No. 20 Mobil 1 Toyota Supra joined the conversation during the final lap of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Its driver, John Hunter Nemechek, wasn’t one of them.
After a nondescript race that saw Nemechek lurk at the back of the lead pack for the first half of the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300, the 25-year-old used a push from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Myatt Snider to rocket forward late in the race – strategically placing himself in contention when it counted.
Nemechek found himself sixth in line, behind eventual winner Austin Hill and four JR Motorsports Chevrolets, as the field pulled around the 2.5-mile Daytona tri-oval in single-file formation and the laps wound down in the 300-mile marathon.
However, as the JR Motorsports teammates tried to begin moving forward inside of two laps to go, Josh Berry and Brandon Jones made contact that sent Jones spinning, forcing a late caution flag and setting up an overtime restart that shuffled the deck among the front-running contenders.
Though it was Justin Allgaier who originally got to the head of the field following the last green flag, Nemechek found a lane when Sam Mayer went spinning and flipping on the backstretch during the final lap of the race.
He was able to duck to the inside, avoiding Mayer’s car despite going below the double-yellow “out of bounds” line, and used the momentum from Snider’s push to pull even with Hill just as the caution was called to freeze the field and end the race under the yellow and checkered flags.
After a video review, NASCAR determined that Hill was a bumper width ahead of Nemechek at the moment the caution was called, leaving the second-generation driver with a second-place finish at the World Center of Racing.
In discussing the finish with reporters, Nemechek noted that he believed he was ahead of Hill when the field was frozen, but said he was still pleased to leave Daytona with a race car that wasn’t torn up.
“I thought we were ahead, but it looks like the 31 (Parker Retzlaff) gave the 21 (Hill) a good push on the outside,” Nemechek explained after seeing a replay of the last lap. “I can’t thank everyone enough on this Mobil 1 GR Supra [team] for Joe Gibbs Racing. Just proud of our effort.
“It’s been a long off season waiting to get to Daytona … and just to be that close stings a bit.”
Though Nemechek had help from a teammate at the end of the race, he admitted that the Toyota drivers were “short on help” as the laps wound down Saturday evening.
“The whole race was intense and fast. … I was hoping after we signed the deal to come to Daytona and get the season kicked off that we could perform, and to come out of here with a race car that’s in one piece … definitely makes us proud,” Nemechek said. “Just can’t thank Myatt Snider enough for working with me all day.
“We didn’t have the numbers with the Toyotas, it was definitely a Chevy type of day,” he added. “But we worked well together, and we were able to come home in second and fifth.
Nemechek leaves Daytona third in the early Xfinity Series standings, 18 points back of Hill but with a solid foundation as he begins his pursuit of Joe Gibbs Racing’s second straight season championship.
“This was a great points day, but our car was as fast as Xfinity 10G. Looking forward to moving on to Fontana and I’m glad that we got the year kicked off this way and hopefully we can go chase some more wins,” said Nemechek. “I feel like there are some here in our future.
“We need to get our speedway program just a little bit better, but I’m thankful for the opportunity from Coach (Gibbs) and I wish Coy (Gibbs) was here,” Nemechek added. “Thank you to Heather (Gibbs) and the entire Gibbs family and everyone at Toyota and TRD for helping me move back up to the Xfinity Series after taking a gamble and moving up from the Truck Series after leaving the Cup Series.
“The plan is working, and the Lord is good.”