By Dustin Albino

For the first time in Daniel Hemric‘s NASCAR career, he enters a race weekend as a winner.

Hemric‘s race win at Phoenix Raceway in November was much bigger than any ordinary checkered flag, as a bump to Austin Cindric in the final two turns catapulted Hemric to the 2021 Xfinity Series championship. Since then, there’s been a multitude of changes for the 31-year-old in a short period of time.

Hemric allowed himself a couple of nights to celebrate his feat. He reconnected with his Joe Gibbs Racing team in Nashville, site of the NASCAR Awards banquet in early December. It also took him approximately two and a half weeks to watch the entire Phoenix race, one he won’t ever forget.

“I look back at living in that moment, being inside that car, and in a roundabout way how slow motion things felt,” Hemric recalled to “And then to see how fast things transpired and how fast my career changed in a short couple of feet, leading to the start/finish line in one corner.”

Hemric realizes he’s a champion. He understands what comes next, trying to win consecutive titles. But he also knows how close he was to not having another opportunity.

When it was announced Hemric would pilot the No. 18 Toyota for JGR in 2021, he knew it had a one-year expiration date. Sponsor Poppy Bank wasn’t going to extend its deal with JGR past 2021, despite backing the North Carolina native like no firm had previously done.

When Hemric was going through a mid-summer “slump” in 2021, he didn’t want to think about the future. He knew, ultimately, he had to take care of the present or else his stock car racing career could simply be over.

Not knowing Hemric’s situation, Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, first attempted to reach out to Hemric in July, seeing if the two sides could work together. But for multiple weeks, Hemric ignored Rice, leaving him on read.

“I tweeted him and said, ‘Just glad to see you‘re still alive,”” Rice said. “I finally texted him one last time and said, ‘Hey, this is the last time I‘m ever texting you, you need to call me.‘ He called me and I think Daniel was going through a period of his life in racing where he didn‘t know what to do, didn‘t know where to turn.”

On Aug. 10, Hemric finally returned Rice’s call after a mutual friend told him to connect with Rice, and the two sides began to hash out details for 2022.

“When [Hemric] called me, he asked if this was a joke,” Rice said. “I said, ‘No, it‘s not a joke.‘ When he got off the phone he said, ‘Let me think about this and I‘ll call you back.‘ I said, ‘Hold on a second, did you just really say that?‘ He said, ‘Yeah, I need to think about this.‘

“I got off the phone and called Matt Kaulig and said, ‘Dude, I don‘t know. This guy needs to think whether he wants to come drive our racecar or not.””

Hemric was trying to turn his program around within the No. 18 camp, coming so close to winning multiple times. At Charlotte Motor Speedway, he was dominant, only to get a pit road penalty and get involved in a crash coming through the field. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, he was turned by teammate Kyle Busch on a late restart. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong.

When talking to Rice, Hemric was legitimately shocked by what was being said. He was offered another full-time gig, prior to becoming a champion.

“It was about having someone willing to pick the phone up and call you for an opportunity,” Hemric said. “Not necessarily having to take your check somewhere or take anything anywhere. You want to be wanted and know that you‘re an asset.

“When I got that phone call, it was a really deep conversation I needed to have within myself, my family and with Matt and Chris to see if it made sense for myself. I laid my cards on the table about where my career stood, what I wanted out of it and asked what their long-term vision and goals were. And the vision for their company, I knew by the time I hung the phone up, I wanted to be a part of that.”

Some forget, but Hemric has previous history with Rice. Making his way through the NASCAR ranks, he competed for small NTS Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series, a team Rice ran. In his lone truck start during the 2014 season, the pairing worked together as driver/crew chief.

Back then, Hemric had next to no prior experience in stock cars. Sure, he competed in super late models, but racing for NTS was the first time he drove anything that had integral parts that make a stock car what it is.

Even then, Rice saw the potential in Hemric. But as he puts it, potential can be a scary thing.

“I think Daniel has some of the utmost driving talent, drivers feel that you‘ve ever met in your life,” Rice added. “I think sometimes that can hurt you as a racecar driver because you know too much and what‘s going on. He’s very methodical at what he does, he‘s very serious with what he does. At some point, it‘s like just figure out how to drive the racecar and move forward. I saw his talent then and how much he had.”

Compared to NTS, though, Kaulig Racing handles its business much different. Because of that and experience, Rice thinks the racing world is going to see a different Hemric than before and his driving talent will show out in 2022.

The two remained frenemies over the years. In three years with Richard Childress Racing, Hemric and Rice would take part in the same competition meetings and see each other multiple times every week on the Welcome, N.C. campus. Still, the two wanted to beat one another on the racetrack.

The philosophy Rice has in hiring drivers is simple: Go after the best option. Then, it’s up to the team to find sponsors.

For the first time in its existence, Kaulig Racing has a NASCAR champion as part of its full-time driver lineup. And the champion’s mindset hasn’t shifted one iota heading into the new season.

“Whether you have the champion title next to you or not, that‘s my own personal goal every single day to continue to show up,” Hemric said. “Everything I did to get me to that particular night is what I‘m going to continue to do each and every day following that. That‘s how I trained in the offseason, that‘s how I fired off this new race team with and that‘s my goal.”

Hemric’s first day with Kaulig Racing was entering Charlotte Motor Speedway in mid-December for the Next Gen test, as the team was getting ready for its full-time foray into the Cup Series. The defending Xfinity Series champion will compete in eight points races, beginning with the Daytona 500 this Sunday.

Getting another stab at the Cup level — splitting the No. 16 ride with AJ Allmendinger and Noah Gragson — is something Hemric wasn’t sure he’d ever get again, despite winning Rookie of the Year in 2019.

Hemric said: “Internally, being a part of the show was one thing the first time but being removed from it and not necessarily wanting to be removed from it, there‘s a certain desire that you‘re not sure if you‘ll ever get to fulfill again and I now have that, even if it‘s in a smaller dose of eight points races. I don‘t take that lightly and look forward to making the most of it.”

Now it’s time for Hemric to prove Rice’s decision right.

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