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.

7 comments:

JCman7 said...

Great article! Right now fans are helping to sponsor Joe at Talladega. Please see joenemechek.net for more info on how you can donate. Also article on racingunderdogs.com Thanks! Go Joe!!

SterlingPride said...

To his fans, Joe Nemechek has a very human face. Certainly, if he'd had the right equipment, and time to put together the stable crew he needed, he would still be in the thick of things. Well, Joe has lots of fans. Why? Because he's never asked for anything he did not earn. And right now those fans, myself included, are trying our best to help fund his entry into the Talladega race on November 1st. If you're so inclined, we could use some help. In any event, you're welcome to visit his Message Board and read what his fans have written and pledged to an ordinary man with extraordinary grit and determination. I'm very proud to be affiliated in some small way with Mr. Joe Nemechek.

Right Minded Fellow said...

RMF is not in the position to donate to a NASCAR team right now when groceries and medical bills take priority but wow, what dedicated fans!!! it's really cool to see folks check in for "Front Row Joe."

nick said...

I am also a member on joenemechek.net, and just like JC and SterlingPride, I am asking for everyone to pitch in some money if they can for the great cause of Joe running the entire race at Talladega coming up in just a few weeks. If you would please visit www.joenemechek.net and see details! Thanks! And Go JOE!!!

SterlingPride said...

Thank you, RMF. Your comment, your support and your great article are very much appreciated.

Nadine said...

Happy to see an article that give Joe Nemechek the credit he so richly deserves. Thanks!

My husband and I have been fans of Joe's for many years, and we're very happy to be able to do our small part toward helping to sponsor him at Talladega. I hope a lot of others will be inspired to add their bit, too -- $5, $10, $25, $50 or whatever they can afford.

I can't think of a single driver that more deserves the help of his fans than Joe does.

Right Minded Fellow said...

Wow, in writing this blog, I never would have anticipated the intense support Joe Nemechek would receive though it surely shows him worthy. Surely, the spirit of Alan Kulwicki lives on in the hopes of this loyal fan base.

When most of the "start and park" drivers pull off the track, I respond with a cynical sneer suggesting what did they show up in the first place, but when the network announcer reports Mr. Joe has pulled behind the wall, it hurts.

One has to wonder if he were driving the #88 car with all its resources where he'd be in the standings. This is not meant as a knock on Junior but a simple reality check.