When John Hunter Nemechek elected to go back to the Craftsman Truck Series following a one-year Cup Series stint, he expected to win races — a lot of them. He did exactly that for two years and continued doing so during the 2023 Xfinity Series regular season and it paid off with an announced Cup Series ride in 2024 with Legacy Motor Club.
Nemechek enters the 2023 Xfinity Series playoffs with a series-high six wins, despite coming up five points shy of winning the regular season title, which went to Richard Childress Racing‘s Austin Hill. Still, Nemechek has a lofty 49 playoff points, which is a 43-point buffer over the elimination line to kickstart the postseason this weekend at Bristol.
“Austin Hill won the regular season championship,” Nemechek said when asked if he thought he was the championship favorite, “but we feel like as a team that we are ready for this playoff run.”
The No. 20 car is led by crew chief Ben Beshore, who spent the previous two seasons as Kyle Busch’s crew chief in the Cup Series. Beshore guided Nemechek to have far and away the fastest entry throughout the 2023 season. Nemechek‘s 915 laps led is more than double the second-highest total of an Xfinity Series regular, which is held by Justin Allgaier at 361. Hill is the only other driver to lead north of 300 laps.
By sweeping the stages during the regular season finale at Kansas, Nemechek also enters the playoffs with the most stage wins at nine. His 19 top-10 finishes are tied with Hill for the most through the opening 26 races, though he trails the No. 21 team in top fives (15 to 13) and average finish (8.0 to 9.7).
The majority of metrics used favor the No. 20 team making a run to the championship race at Phoenix. Nemechek just needs to survive the opening two rounds and minimize the risk of crashing multiple times and expecting to advance.
“We have a fair amount of playoff points that affords you a little bit of a buffer in case you do have some issues,” Beshore said. “The first round is just about getting solid finishes. The second round is about turning it up and putting our best foot forward. You basically have to average a top five finish to advance (to Phoenix).”
There is one concern for the No. 20 team, however: road courses. Fortunately for Nemechek, who admits that he has struggled putting full races together on road courses this season, the Charlotte Roval is in the opening round and not the Round of 8.
In the seven regular season road course races, Nemechek had an average finishing position of 15.4 and spent just three laps pacing the field. Two of those races — COTA and Road America — resulted in finishes outside the top 25, including a DNF.
“That‘s been our weak spot this year,” Nemechek said of road course racing. “Joe Gibbs Racing has been strong at the road courses, I just haven‘t executed well on my part. I‘ve got to do a better job there.”
It‘s entirely possible that Nemechek either wins his way into the Round of 8 before the opening round concludes at the Charlotte Roval or builds a large enough points gap that he has already clinched a spot prior to the green flag at Charlotte. After all, he did win at Texas in 2021 (the second race in the Round of 12), when he was running a limited schedule for JGR.
“I like the first round,” Nemechek noted. “The first round has some good racetracks for myself and Joe Gibbs Racing as an organization. We‘ve been fast at Texas. Bristol is the only one I haven‘t run an Xfinity car at in quite some time. Feel like the first round suits us really well.”
The next round consists of Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, all tracks in which Nemechek enjoys competing at. Among his favorite tracks on the schedule is Homestead, where he can rim-ride the wall to gain maximum speed .
Should Nemechek be among the four drivers battling for the Xfinity championship at Phoenix, his odds are strong. In six series starts at the 1-mile track, he‘s never finished worse than ninth.
“It‘s just a racetrack that suits my driving style,” he said of Phoenix. “Phoenix has been a good racetrack for me and pretty much everything I‘ve driven there.”
Since Nemechek dipped back into NASCAR‘s lower-tier series, he‘s had some heartbreaks. He dominated the 2021 Craftsman Truck Series regular season with Kyle Busch Motorsports and made it to Phoenix with the chance at winning the championship. An early flat tire derailed his night and he finished third in the championship standings.
Finishes of 24th and 35th in the semifinal round last season knocked Nemechek out in the Round of 8 and he finished fifth in the standings. The playoff approach that the 26-year-old had at KBM didn‘t work. The dangerous thing is that now he understands what to do.
“I can‘t give you all the secrets of what didn‘t work, but I would say that I have a different mental approach this year coming into it than I did the last couple of years,” Nemechek said. “Things that I tried during the playoffs really didn‘t work for myself or the KBM team during that time.
“I‘ve just got to go back to what I know how to do and that‘s go race every single weekend and try to win but maximize our day.”
Neither Nemechek or Beshore would commit to saying its championship or bust. The crew chief doesn‘t want to put that level of pressure on the No. 20 team, which is made up of many members that won the 2022 title with Ty Gibbs. But the goal is obvious.
“With the pedigree of this team and organization, that‘s what our site is set on for sure,” Beshore said.
The No. 20 team also isn‘t worried about the competition. It‘s going to be seven races of heads down, pulling up the bootstraps and grinding it out. The team isn‘t worrying about the competition.
“We‘re not really worried or concerned about other guys,” Nemechek said. “We‘re staying focused on ourselves and going to run our race each and every weekend. I feel like that‘s the best approach for myself and our [No.] 20 team. That‘s what we‘re here to do.
“We‘re here to win.”