Thursday, October 8, 2009
Sprint Cup 2009: Joe Nemechek -- The Tale of a "Start and Park" Driver
The lack of a name on the rear quarter panel tells the story for the name above the driver's window.
Consider the plight of Joe Nemechek, in his unsponsored family owned ride “Front Row Joe” qualified 7th for last week’s race in Kansas, but not having the funds to survive a single tire change, he put in a few laps and was out of action back in the garage by lap 25 finishing in next to last place where he would have finished were it not for early misfortune for Bobby Labonte.
Joe Nemechek is one of a handful of drivers who faithfully show up every week to qualify for the race but have no intention or ability to actually compete in the race bowing out before the first round of scheduled pit stops. They’ve become known as “start and park” drivers and are a nuisance to Sprint Cup fans but their ranks are even greater in the Nationwide series. They leave fans to wonder, if a team is entered with no intention to compete, why is it there in the first place? Of course, the same could be said of the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball. With skeleton crews, these teams must maintain some kind of financial status.
For Joe Nemechek being relegated to being a “start and park” driver seems especially cruel for a team that’s truly a family operation. In what is surely the twilight of his career, one can only think of Nemechek’s career as one that was full of “could have’s, should have’s would haves.”
Joe Nemechek was the NASCAR Busch Series “Rookie of the Year” in 1990 winning the championship in 1992 driving his Texas Pete sponsored Chevrolet. His gutty win in the August New England Chevy Dealers 250 banging fenders and trading paint with Dale Earnhardt in his black Intimidator elevated the good-natured Florida driver into the spotlight for not giving into the sports toughest competitor where the nasty #3 car performed its best. Surely, nothing would have stopped Dale Earnhardt from wrecking the upstart driver if it would have given him the win, but the duel continued until the cars passed under the checkered flag with Nemechek gaining just a half car length finish over the NASCAR legend.
Nemechek graduated to the Winston Cup series in 1994 racing for the Larry Hendrick operation racing to a 27th position in the standings with one top five and three top tens but not qualifying for two races. The following year with Burger King sponsorship, he attempted to run as an owner/driver but the results were about the same for 1995 before dropping off to 34th in 1996 with only two top 10’s. In 1997 he got a ride with SABCO racing in the #42 car which had been Kyle Petty’s car for many years. Nemechek began to earn his reputation as “Front Row Joe” winning two poles despite only being able to finish in the top ten three times with a 28th finish for the year. The 1997 season would be a tragic year for Joe Nemechek and his family when his brother John was killed in a track mishap at the new Homestead track outside Miami. Despite a poor 30th finish in the standings, 1999 found Joe Nemechek in victory lane winning at Loudon, New Hampshire, the track that helped make him noteworthy in the Busch series. He also gained three top tens and three poles in his final year at SABCO.
In 2000, Nemechek signed to race for Andy Petree’s operation where he’d pick up his 2nd career win at Rockingham, November, 2001. Petree’s team could not stay afloat financially forcing Nemechek to move on to Carter-Haas, another team with limited finances, and from that point forward despite spending some time with MB2/MBV Motorsports which became the Ginn operation and racing with U.S. Army sponsorship, it was a tough ride for Joe gaining wins in 2003 and 2004. 2004 proved his best season with 3 top fives, 9 top tens, and two poles.
By July 2007, racing for Ginn, Joe Nemechek was without a ride. His #13 ride had no sponsorship, and he’d bounce around from assorted low level rides through 2008 before reviving NEMCO, the family business to enter races in Nationwide and Sprint Cup this year, but it would be just that, entering, having no solid sponsorship in a time of harsh finances, we see a career with its share of almosts looking bleak for the future.
NASCAR fans will never know how talented Joe Nemechek might have been had he raced with better equipment and first class crew chiefs. Despite his friendly, jovial nature, he did not have the Hollywood or Madison Avenue kind of image that would attract major sponsorship. His plight puts a human face on the misery of witnessing “start and park” drivers who appear to do little but clutter up the back of the field early in races.
For a fellow who rose up through the ranks along with drivers like Jeff and Ward Burton and Jeff Gordon, fans must wish him well. It’s been a family affair for the Nemechek’s which cost him a brother.