PENSACOLA, Fla. and CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Story by Associate Editor Kyle Magda for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — NASCAR photo —
17-year-old John Hunter Nemechek achieved a feat this year that his dad, Joe, never did; a win in the 47th Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
The younger Nemechek passed pole-sitter Hunter Robbins for the lead with 15 laps to go, and started to pull away, until Johanna Long and Preston Peltier’s troubles brought out the yellow and bunched up the field. Nemechek brought his No. 8 machine down pit road for two tires to set up for the restart.
Admitting he wasn’t good on restarts, he made a bold four-wide move to take the lead and never looked back to score the biggest win of his racing career.
“When we went and tested, we probably did over a hundred restarts just because I told my guys ‘If that’s what it comes down to, I’m not losing the race on a restart’,” Nemechek said.
“I was pretty calm throughout the whole deal,” he added about the Snowball Derby finish. “I was kind of getting excited to where I was getting to the time to dig deep and whatever happens, happens; but, we’re going for the win, no matter what.”
The Derby win capped off a stunning two-month stretch for the second-generation driver. Nemechek claimed a second crown jewel win in the All-American 400 at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in November, crushing the field and leading all but six laps in the 300-lap event, and added a seventh place finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Phoenix the following week for good measure.
His racing season started off with a win in his Pro Late Model during Watermelon Capital Speedway’s SpeedFest in January, but his Truck campaign began at the .526 mile Martinsville Speedway in the No. 8 SWN-NEMCO Tundra. That start got the teenager a top-15 finish and some valuable experience. The highlight of his 10-race Truck schedule was leading 53 laps and battling with eventual 2014 champion Matt Crafton for the lead at Gateway in June.
Nemechek split the No. 8 truck with his dad and Joe scored the team’s best finish with a third at Texas in June. Transmission troubles plagued John Hunter at Mosport for the team’s only did-not-finish (DNF) of the season, however the duo still claimed a seventh-place points finish in the owner standings for the No. 8 team.
Joe’s biggest smile of the season came when his son won the Derby, however.
“He was down there in victory lane; he was as happy as can be,” John Hunter said. “He was definitely proud and it was awesome to have him down there to celebrate. He hasn’t been there for many of my wins, and to have him down there for the biggest win of my career, it’s pretty special.”
Racing runs in the Nemechek family, with Joe running in NASCAR’s top-three series since 1989 now and having 20 career wins in his racing career. His brother, John, also jump-started his NASCAR career in the then-called Craftsman Truck Series, until a fatal crash during the series race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Mar. 1997 claimed his life.
Joe and his wife, Andrea, were expecting a baby boy that June who was originally going to be named Hunter, but added John to his first name, in memory of his late uncle, hence the name John Hunter. His dad healed some of the pain by winning the Busch Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that November.
Both father and son ran the No. 8 in 2014 to honor John. Now, John Hunter turns 18 this June, with the plan that he will take over the No. 8 truck for the rest of the season.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t really paid attention to it,” the younger Nemechek said about 2015. “I just know when my birthday is, and I’ve been counting down to that moment when I turn 18.”
He can still run in trucks on tracks at 1.25 miles or less at the start of 2015, until hitting the over-18 age requirement on June 11.
But until then, he simply looks back on a season to remember — a breakout that has begun to define him as a racer at long last.
“Really, (the season) still hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s still unbelievable. I really can’t believe that we won (the Snowball Derby and the All-American 400).”
“This whole season, it’s definitely [has been] a feeling that’s a hard feeling to come by. It’s just a feeling that you can’t really express. We finally broke through this January and we’ve been on a roll ever since. I’m just hoping we can continue that after the holidays here.”
Listen in to an extended cut of Race Chaser Online’s interview with John Hunter Nemechek from the Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show earlier this month: