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Nemechek's gamble to step back from Cup Series leads to 2024 promotion to drive for Jimmie Johnson

John Hunter Nemechek doesn’t regret moving to the Cup Series for one ill-fated, underperforming season with Front Row Motorsports.

The second-generation NASCAR driver was theoretically ready for the promotion and had done his time in the ladder systems. But that rookie year was the 2020 COVID-19 “bubble” season in which teams had no practice or qualifying, and all seat time came once the green flag fell each week.

It wasn't conducive for Nemechek to improve his racing and at the end of the one turbulent season, he made a critical career move: Nemechek dropped all the way down to the Truck Series — where he'd last run a full season four years earlier — to essentially prove himself.

Nemechek's two years driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports earned him seven wins, a slot in Toyota's development program and this year a promotion to a full-time Xfinity Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. Nemechek heads into Saturday's race at Kansas with five wins and ranked second in the Xfinity Series standings.

He also heads to Kansas with his career gamble having fully paid off: Legacy Motor Club said this week that Nemechek will drive its No. 42 Cup car next season when the team moves from Chevrolet to Toyota.

“I think the biggest thing for me was not feeling like I was in the right situation in 2020, and with the opportunity that came from Toyota and Kyle Busch, I felt like a path really was there for me, even if it was different from the path I was on,” Nemechek told The Associated Press. "It just seemed right on stepping back, taking time to kind of revamp my career, show that I can win and not be forgotten about.

“So to go back to the Truck Series and win, to go back to the Xfinity Series and win, that's what got me an opportunity to go Cup racing again and I am glad everything is working out the way we wanted it to when we decided on this path at the end of 2020.”

Nemechek said he had resigned himself to returning to JGR for another year in the Xfinity Series but next year's promotion came together rather quickly.

Legacy Motor Club had a two-year contract with Noah Gragson, but after Gragson was suspended by NASCAR in August for liking an inappropriate meme on social media, Legacy co-owner Jimmie Johnson told AP that Gragson shocked the team by asking for his release.

“He 100% resigned and it surprised us because that was not what we anticipated,” Johnson told AP. “I've stayed in contact with Noah and speak to him pretty regularly, a couple of times a week. He's on the path to NASCAR's reinstatement process and he's working on himself and I think he's really found some good personal growth. He and his family shared with us that he wanted to step away and that's what he's done.”

It left Legacy looking for a teammate for Erik Jones — Johnson plans to run about 10 NASCAR races next season — and even with the upcoming move to Toyota the team didn't think Nemechek was a possibility. Martin Truex Jr. was still in limbo on his future, and had Truex decided to retire, Johnson assumed Nemechek would be promoted inside the Gibbs organization.

“We'd been in discussions, a lot of internal conversations, about who we want to be someday, where we are in the marketplace, and we weren't shopping,” Johnson said. “We were not in conversations with anybody, and once Noah resigned, we actively got into the space of trying to find another driver.”

Johnson was once teammates at Hendrick Motorsports with Nemechek's father, Joe, and has watched his new driver grow from a kid running around the motorhome lot into a married father of two. Now 26, Nemechek has shown a maturity, a grasp of what's needed on and off the racetrack, and an approach that Johnson appreciates.

“You know, not knowing how his career path was going to work out for him long-term, in my opinion, the growth that he's had working his way back up, he put a lot of faith in the Toyota system and himself," Johnson said. “This has really paid off for him.”

NOTES: Johnson relocated last month to the United Kingdom with his wife and enrolled his two daughters in school overseas. It is a temporary move the Johnson family had long been considering.

In the UK, the seven-time NASCAR champoin is surrounded by good friends Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, who have regularly made the commute to the United States for their racing careers. It is also a way the Johnson family can begin to heal following a family tragedy in June. Authorities said they believed Johnson's mother-in-law killed her husband and grandson before committing suicide.

Johnson said the move has so far been therapeutic. He said he can be back in the U.S. at least once a month with Legacy, if not more, and is focused on putting together a Cup race schedule for himself for 2024. Johnson said he has ruled out competing in the Indianapolis 500 and isn't currently looking at any sports car races, but would like to again run the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing