Push it during qualifying for a better starting spot? Or wait for the race? Four tires or two tires? Pit now or hope for a caution?
Those are among the endless number of questions and decisions a NASCAR team faces on race day. It’s easy to second-guess every decision, and whether the right call was made.
The Star-Telegram got a firsthand look at what a team goes through on race day when it shadowed NEMCO Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet truck team on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
John Hunter Nemechek had a solid day, finishing second and taking the truck series lead.
His team’s experience shows what a race day will be like for the Xfinity and Sprint Cup crews on Saturday and Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway:
NEMCO Motorsports is a small-time operation compared to some NASCAR teams. Owned by former Sprint Cup driver Joe Nemechek, the team and its 11 full-time employees have yet to land a full-time sponsor for its No. 8 truck, but are hopeful that something comes to fruition soon.
But the team is more loaded than its limited financial resources would suggest. Members of Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew join them on race days, as well as Ryan Newman’s spotter, Jason Jarrett.
Qualifying for the truck race began at 11:15 a.m. Sunday, and John Hunter and the crew were ready to go.
John Hunter posted quick laps early during the first two rounds of qualifying, knowing he’d easily advance to the next round. That allowed the team to shut it down with more than five minutes left in each round. After all, why push it early on in qualifying?
John Hunter waited patiently between sessions, as the engineers and crew crunched numbers such as tire pressure and tire wear. Round 3 was what mattered most, and John Hunter had a solid run by qualifying eighth.
Next up for John Hunter were a couple promotional events (he’s trying to a land a sponsor, remember?) at which he took over NASCAR’s Snapchat account and another for Fox Sports where he walked viewers through the garage as his team made its final adjustments on the truck.
Those were entertaining enough before the mundane driver and crew chief meeting, where a NASCAR official lectured them on pit road speed, caution speed and other things of that nature. Cup champion Kyle Busch used the meeting to eat his lunch and then managed to duck out before it ended. Attendance had already been taken by that point, of course.
John Hunter somehow stayed till the bitter end. Chapel and pre-race introductions followed.
At pre-race introductions, John Hunter received a nice ovation and then proceeded to take a countless number of pictures with family and friends in front of the truck.
Joe Nemechek even turned from “owner” to “dad” briefly, snapping pictures on his phone of John Hunter. Eventually, drivers were summoned to their trucks with the race just minutes away.
The crew and close family members headed to the pit box, set up near the start/finish line on the Turn 1 side. John Hunter was in line with 32 other trucks running a few preliminary laps before the green flag dropped.
John Hunter barked out numbers to his crew. “Should be able to use 46, 4700,” he said, referring to engine speed or revolutions per minute.
He then said: “Let’s go get that clock,” referencing Martinsville’s signature grandfather clock given to race winners.
Once the pace car dipped off to pit road and the green flag was moments from waving, Jarrett said: “Rolling … rolling … rolling … Green! Green! Green!”
The race was on and John Hunter looked to gain as many spots as possible. He moved up to sixth by Lap 30. The first pit stop for the No. 8 team came on Lap 44.
Four new tires and fuel were in order, and the elite pit crew showed its chops as the team gained a spot coming out of pit road.
The race got into a rhythm and John Hunter stayed in the lead group. Jarrett constantly talked to him on the radio, telling him how close other trucks were and which ones were closing in.
On Lap 165 of the 250-lap race, the team gambled by taking only used right-side tires during a pit stop in order to keep a fresh set of tires for the final 50 or so laps.
That plan, however, fell apart as the race progressed. Cautions came out seemingly every other lap, which made it difficult to have a timely pit stop.
But John Hunter displayed his racing talents by moving up to second on old tires and giving the eventual race winner, Busch, a run for his money down the stretch.
John Hunter never managed to get past Busch on multiple re-starts, but he at least maintained the second position. On a half-mile track such as Martinsville, it would have been easy for John Hunter to fall from second to 22nd.
“He had by far the oldest tires, so to finish second? Really, really proud of him,” Joe said.
John Hunter also seemed pleased with the second-place run, which allowed him to take over the truck series’ points lead. And, hey, if the reigning Sprint Cup champion wasn’t in the field, maybe he’d have gotten that clock like he said minutes before the start.
“I’m pleased,” John Hunter said, “But you always want one spot better.”