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Thursday, May 30
From no ride to top ride
By Jerry Bonkowski
At the start of this season, it appeared as if "Front Row Joe" would soon become "No Go Joe."
That was the fate that veteran Winston Cup driver Joe Nemechek faced when, shortly after joining Carter-Haas Motorsports, the team's primary sponsor, Kmart, unceremoniously pulled its $10 million sponsorship off the table due to impending bankruptcy.
Having left Andy Petree Racing after last season, Nemechek was looking forward to a new start and a promising future with his new team, co-owned by Travis Carter and Carl Haas, and joining longtime friend Todd Bodine as teammates.
Instead, Nemechek suffered perhaps the most challenging time of his career. While it's quite common for sponsorship to go away at the end of a season, much like Oakwood Homes left Nemechek and Petree after 2001, it's rare that a team loses a sponsorship just before the season starts.
"That's one of those things that no one ever dreams of happening," Nemechek said. "When it happened, it definitely caught me by surprise, because here I thought I was stepping into an excellent opportunity and was going to have a shot at winning races.
"It didn't take but a blink of the eye and all of a sudden they're announcing Kmart is filing bankruptcy and the racing program is going away. It just destroys you, because you know without funding you can't go out and be competitive."
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Nemechek has rebounded admirably, going from an unpleasant situation that left his 2002 hopes in tatters, into arguably the best ride of his career, and with one of the best teams in racing today -- Hendrick Motorsports.
Nemechek replaced Jerry Nadeau behind the wheel of the No. 25 Chevrolet shortly before The Winston two weeks ago. He finds himself in outstanding company with two of the best teammates in the business: four-time and defending Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and former champ Terry Labonte.
"Oh yes, I have excellent teammates," Nemechek said. "We communicate well. It's in their best interest to not only make their own cars run good, but to share information and try and make all three teams run good, so that's been a very, very good thing."
Nadeau's release came primarily because of inconsistent performances during his two-plus-year tenure. While Nadeau won at Atlanta in the fall of 2000, he never could achieve the consistency he needed to match the potential team owner Rick Hendrick felt Nadeau had.
"It's strange how things work and how the opportunities fall in this sport, the ups and downs, and you just hope you rebound on an up side," Nemechek said. "If I didn't have all the bad things happen to me this year, then I wouldn't have this opportunity with the 25 car and Hendrick Motorsports.
"We were testing at Charlotte and got a message that Rick (Hendrick) wanted me to call him back. You kind of hear the scuttlebutt around the racetrack. I called him back, he wanted to set up a meeting, and that's kind of how it all got going.
"This is definitely one of the best rides I've ever had. They're a very good team and a good organization. I was brought in as an interim driver with no guarantees so hopefully I'll be able to perform and get more opportunities. I'd definitely like to stay on and the opportunity is endless here."
While he empathizes with Nadeau, Nemechek also understands his moving behind the wheel of the No. 25 is not personal, it's simply the business of racing.
"No, that part of it (replacing another driver) is not hard to do," Nemechek said. "The hardest part is just developing that relationship with the team that's going to take you to the next level. It's like you're behind the 8-ball at the time (when you join a new team). You have to establish those relationships and get that chemistry working to make it successful.
"The 25 car has run good in the past at a lot of these racetracks, so they've got a lot of good notes to fall back on, they've got a lot of good personnel on the team, the teams communicate so well together. There's a lot of information that's shared, so I'm anticipating this being a very quick learning curve."
In the meantime
"My not being able to race every week wasn't really that hard on the family," Nemechek said. "It was harder on me, just because I'm a race car driver. I want to race every week. Sitting at home is not an option.
"I've done everything I can since then, to help qualify cars and relief drive, just to continue to keep myself current in the seat. But, the one good thing that was able to come out of this was I was able to spend more time at home with my family. You wake up in the morning with your kids jumping on you, and you put them to bed at night, all week long. When you're racing, you don't have that opportunity."
Nemechek has a contract to drive the No. 25 Chevy through the remainder of the season. His first race for his new team, last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Concord, N.C., started with an 18th-place qualifying effort, but ended with a disappointing 30th-place finish.
"It's just another learning experience for us," Nemechek said. "We're just trying to gain information, the team is trying to learn what I need in that race car. It's not like they can just throw Jeff Gordon's set-up in there. Everybody's style is a little bit different, and I've seen that over two weeks, just what setups different guys run. You have to tune around the drivers. The people that communicate good are going to hit the setups right. Then it's up to the drivers and crews to have good pit stops and make the rest of it go good.
"The opportunity is here to win races, and that's what we're here to do. We have to learn. Our goal right now is if we can finish 15th in the next couple of weeks, that'd be awesome. The team's going to learn and then we're going to step up our goals. You've got to do one thing at a time, but the opportunity is definitely here to win races."
And, if everything goes well, it won't be long before Nemechek becomes "Front Row Joe" again.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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