Eighteen-year-old John Hunter Nemechek has something in common with the heavyweights of NASCAR.
He’s in the Chase.
Not the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but the Chase for the Camping World Trucks Series.
Adopting the blueprint of the Chase for Sprint Cup championship format, which has proved popular since its introduction in 2014, NASCAR implemented a playoff system in both the trucks and Xfinity Series this season.
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And Nemechek, by virtue of his win at Atlanta, and Johnny Sauter, who won the season-opening race at Daytona, are the first two to qualify for the eight-driver, seven-race Chase in the trucks series.
“This means a lot to us as a team,” said Nemechek, who drives the unsponsored and modestly budgeted No. 8 Chevrolet, owned by his father, former Sprint Cup driver Joe Nemechek. “It shows what we can do as a smaller team that doesn’t have the budget that these other teams have.
“It shows if we focus what’s important in our trucks, we build really good trucks and if we utilize our resources, we know we can run up front and win races.”
The Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas Speedway on Friday night should produce the third driver to lock in a Chase spot because Sprint Cup star Clint Bowyer is the only non-trucks regular in the field.
A year ago, six of the 23 trucks series races were won by Sprint Cup or Xfinity Series drivers, and Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch won the trucks race at Martinsville, beating points-leader Nemechek to the checkered flag.
“I think it’s good for the sport in general, no matter what division it is,” Bowyer said of a Chase for all three series. “It’s a great platform. You win … or you also can do a good job in points, take care of your equipment, not make mistakes and race your way into that Chase race for a championship.
“Ultimately, fast trucks, fast drivers, fast teams will get into that Chase ...Now that they have that, it’s going to be that much more competitive and more competitive to watch.”
The seven-race trucks Chase will begin at New Hampshire on Sept. 24 and feature two elimination rounds. The first round, called the Round of 8, will include New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Talladega. Drivers who win in the Round of 8 automatically advance to the Round of 6 at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. The remaining available positions — one through six — that have not been filled by wins will be filled on points.
Drivers who win a race in the Round of 6 automatically advance to the Championship 4 at Miami Homestead, with the remaining available positions — one through four — that have not been filled by wins will be filled on points. The highest finishing Championship 4 driver will win the points championship.
There’s a downside, to this, too. A driver who has dominated the regular season and would have won the championship based totally on points, could have one bad race in the Round of 8 or Round of 6 and be eliminated before Homestead.
“Some drivers like it, some don’t,” said trucks rookie Rico Abreu. “You could win 10 races and be eliminated before the final round. That’s how things fall sometimes. Hopefully, we can win a race and get to that final round at Homestead.”