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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Joe Nemechek

Joe Nemechek Age: 43
0 wins, 0 top 5's 2 top tens 4 top 15's
Avg start: 18.0 Avg Finish 24.4
#13 Ginn Chevy Crew Chief: Peter Sospenzo

2006 was a tough season for "Front Row" Joe Nemechek. During the past six seasons, Nemecheck was often a threat to win a race despite never driving a top-flight ride. From 1999-2005, Nemechek won four races, seven poles and scored 15 top fives. Even in winless years, he had chances at wins. He led races late in '05 before suffering heartbreak from a sour engine at California and a flat tire.at Lowe's. 2006 marked the first year that he never seriously contended for a win. It also began a period of transition for Nemechek that continues into 2007.

Nemecheck's season was filled with crashes, especially early in the season. He only had 3 DNF's, but 16 total crashes made for a lot of hollow laps. He finished worse than 25th in six of the first ten races. He was never able to gain traction and make a charge in the points. After finishing 16th in points in 2005, Nemecheck slipped to 27th last year. He managed a meager 2 top ten finishes and both came late in the season. It was a down year overall for MB/2. Sterling Marlin finished 34th and struggled all season in his first year with the team.

The largest change in 2006 was Bobby Ginn purchasing MB/2 motorsports. Ginn purchased the team in August and immediately invested in additional resources for the team. It was after this change that Nemechek began running better. Finished the year with seven straight top 20 finishes including two top tens at Lowe's and Atlanta. If the results declined, Nemechek still showed his qualifying prowess in 2006. He had nine top ten starts and averaged an 18.0 starting position. This strength is a necessity in 2007 as the changes continue for Nemechek.

Last fall Mark Martin announced plans to join Ginn for 2007. The move brings enormous credibility to Ginn, but it is at Nemechek's expense. Matin will be in the US Army #01 with crew chief Ryan Pemberton. This slides Nemechek to a brand new team with a new sponsor, new number, new crew and most significantly no owner's points. That means competing with 12-15 teams for seven available starting spots, including teammate Marlin. Nemechek's a great qualifier(career avg start: 18.4, 9 poles), but there is still no safety net or guarantee. Even the slightest bobble in qualifying can cost enough time to miss the field. There is another problem with starting outside the top 35. Cars go through inspection based on their point ranking. The longer a car has to wait, the less practice time is available. Less practice time for Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth is not vital. Teams looking for the best qualifying setup however, need all the possible track time especially at races when there is only one pre-qualifying practice session.

Finding enough qualifying speed will fall on new crew chief Peter Sospenzo. Sospenzo comes from Hendrick Motorsports. He was Nemechek's crew chief in 2003 and also worked with Brian Vickers and Terry Labonte in the past few years. Nemechek won at Richmond with Sospenzo as crew chief in 2003, so at least it's not a completely blank slate. Another asset for qualifying is the team's engines they lease from Hendrick.
Not only is Nemechek switching teams, but he is also switching sponsors, away from US Army. Nemechek and his family, especially his mother, took this sponsor relationship very seriously. Nemechek even visited troops at Guantanamo Bay this past year. A primary sponsor hasn't been announced, but Ginn Resorts is always a possiblity.

Once Nemechek makes the show, he is very capable beyond two laps. He has Cup 4 wins since 1999. Of the 2007 full-time drivers, only 15 have more than Nemechek.He has always ran well in the speedway and restrictor plate races. Eleven of his 18 top 5's have come on intermediate speedway tracks. He also has a win and three top 5's at Loudon. Short tracks are the wildcard, especially Bristol and Martinsville.

Bobby Ginn is intent on improving the organization. He has already purchased new R&D equipment, expanded to three teams and signed a high profile driver. It might take a rough season in 2007 to realize some of the improvements. With two cars outside the top 35, qualifying is priority one. The addition of Martin should also help solving some of the problems with the cars. Nemecheck is definitely an accomplished driver that is capable of not only winning a race, but finishing inside the top 20 in points. If he can steer clear of crashes and start the season well, a top 25 points finish is possible. Realistically it will be a fight to stay inside the top 35 this year.

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