Silly Season in the NASCAR Cup Series is almost over. One team holds the keys to one of the few rides available – Front Row Motorsports. In an unexpected move on Monday, John Hunter Nemechek announced that he’s not going to be returning to his seat in the No. 38 Ford in 2021 and seems to have something already lined up instead.
While some may consider the open ride at FRM a stepping stone seat, one may have to look at the performance out of Nemechek and Michael McDowell in 2020 and see that this could very well be a ride that could eventually be competitive.
While neither driver scored a top five in 2020, they did combine for seven top 10 finishes on the year though too. They only had three of those total in 2019, with three cars full time also. That’s up from two in 2018 and equals the amount (3) in 2017.
So, Nemechek leaving with so few seats available is somewhat surprising.
McDowell, noted this past July that his No. 34 Ford has never shown this much speed before. At that point, he scored his first non superspeedway top 10 finishes of his career at FRM. He was a top 15 machine in fact. He had 10 top 15 finishes overall in 2020. That car had nine of those combined from 2015 through 2019.
“Our cars have had more speed this year than we’ve ever had at Front Row, so that’s helped us, obviously, with performance and getting the results that we need to get,” McDowell said this summer.
McDowell, said that what was even more impressive was that they’ve done so in the pandemic. They didn’t have the luxury of practice or qualifying and still are rolling off with more speed than ever before.
“They’ve done an exceptional job unloading really close without any practice and having our cars very competitive, which is hard to do,” McDowell continued then.”
His crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, says that there’s a number of things to the increase in performance of the team this year.
“It’s a lot of things, to be honest with you,” Blickensderfer said. “Whenever you get better in this sport you very rarely can put your finger on one thing. It’s not one crew chief. It’s not one crew member. It’s not one driver, it’s a few things and when we went from three to two teams at Front Row, we were able to kind of cherry pick and although losing the funding from the 36 car and things like that in the organization hurts, as two teams now we were able to take guys off of that 36 to possibly make our team stronger, either engineers, crew members, so I think the two teams, the guys that build the cars and go to the racetrack on the cars are better than they’ve ever been at Front Row.”
Blickensderfer, says the team owner has spent more and more money each year with their alliance with Roush Fenway to get better and that’s a huge testament to what’s going on.
“Bob Jenkins has done a great job every single year of making small improvements to the quality of products we get from Roush Fenway Racing,” he continued. “We’ve had a longtime relationship with them and every year he spends a little more money to get a little more updated and have similar cars to the 6 and the 17, and this year we are as close as we have ever been and probably about as close as you can be to having the same cars as was coming out of their facility, and that’s not only the bodies, but the parts and pieces we put on the car as well. So, I think we have a better product. I think we have stronger teams, and that gives a confidence in the race car drivers that we’re not gonna battle our butts off to try to stay on the lead lap, we’re gonna battle against guys who are spending two or three times more than us for top 15s, and I think both John Hunter and Michael have been able to do that or the majority of the year.”
McDowell said that Nemechek benefitted from the improved equipment this year to which why his No. 38 Ford was vastly improved too.
“A lot of this sport is timing and we’ve been slowly building this program over a long time, but for me the last three years and we started to see that at the end of last year and we started to make some decent improvements and then this year everything has just come full circle and we’ve really improved all the cars and people and processes, so I think he’s getting the benefit of three, four, five, six, seven years of a lot of people’s hard work, but he’s doing a good job making the most out of it and executing,” said McDowell.
“That’s not to take anything away from him, but John Hunter didn’t bring this speed to Front Row. Front Row was building that over years and he’s very fortunate that he’s got the opportunity this year while the cars are so good, just like I am.”
Now, that 38 seat will have a new driver in it for the third straight year. Do they hire another veteran again like they used to or do they go to Todd Gilliland?
They are high on Gilliland and feel like he can be part of their future, but after just two Truck seasons, is he ready?
FRM said that getting Nemechek took a bit of a perfect storm. Is this Gilliland’s perfect storm for them now?
“We’ve been one of those teams that now that we do have a truck team it could be a little bit different,” said GM Jerry Freeze. “We certainly look at Todd (Gilliland) as a future prospect for us, but we didn’t have that Christopher Bell coming along or Tyler Reddick or anybody like that driving the XFINITY cars, so usually when you see that guy on the ascent he’s already locked in with somebody else with another team or another manufacturer, so we just kind of stumbled into this situation last year where unexpectedly David Ragan decides he’s gonna retire, which was around Michigan in August last year when he shared it with us, and it started getting around in the garage.
“One of the first people to step up to me was the guy that represents John Hunter. They were getting the word then that it sounded like the GMS XFINITY team was gonna potentially close at the end of the year, so John Hunter wasn’t really attached to anybody and certainly somebody on the ascent, a young guy, and because of his dad and knowing his dad for so long we’ve been watching him race since he was 14 or 15 years old and he’s won a ton of big-time short track races and won a lot of truck races driving his dad’s trucks and I’ve always thought just really overachieved.
“This was an opportunity for us to latch onto somebody that was maybe on the ascent and the guys – the David Ragans and David Gillilands that have driven for us in the past just were such great guys that really did a solid job, didn’t tear up your stuff, had good, solid days and were really good with sponsors, but they had kind of had that big opportunity somewhere else and it went away for whatever reason and then they were with us and we never could really seem to get out of the position we were in.
“So, it was a little bit out of the box for us to have the opportunity to hire somebody like John Hunter and then given Matt Tifft’s situation last fall it gave us a chance to kind of audition with John Hunter and let him audition with us – sell him on us and he did really well in those three races that he drove for us and we were able to wrap up our deal for 2020.”
Here’s what he had to say about Gilliland earlier this year too.
“I guess I didn’t know what to expect,” Freeze said. “We felt like he really got kind of a bum rap with what was going on at KBM last year. He was a pretty raw rookie. He’s still just 19 or 20, maybe he’s 20 now. I don’t know. He’s just a young, young guy and I thought he was doing pretty good.
“There was a lot of pressure on him, for sure, and with a lot of negativity going around, so when the end of last year came along and I think Todd was trying to figure out what his next move was, Bob approached David about a collaboration.
“There was a way we could kind of help each other out with some of the stuff we had going on particularly with our fab shop that would help us out, but Bob wanted to help Todd out, too, and give Todd an opportunity in the Truck Series to show what he could do.
“The problem was we didn’t have a truck team. We didn’t really know much about the Truck Series, so DGR was looking to move into Ford and it was a perfect fit all the way around that we could help each other out.
“We’ve really relied on them to help us get off the ground with the truck team and, again, kind of the same way with Roush Fenway we’re racing with the 15 truck as a teammate and sharing information and just racing like they’re complete under one umbrella.
“Going into this season, we weren’t quite sure what to expect because Todd had been a little up-and-down. He’d had a big win at Martinsville at the end of the year and I’ve just been really, really impressed that every race he’s run up in the top-five and had a shot at winning a couple of them. I guess I didn’t expect it to be as competitive as it’s been. They had a little change with crew chiefs and Chris has come in and done a super job since they’ve come back racing and I’m absolutely convinced they’re gonna win a race or more than one race and make the playoffs, for sure.”