Shades of Mark Martin as Nemechek, Hemric, Gragson Get NASCAR Cup Second Chances

nascar cup series ambetter health 400
Act 2: Nemechek, Hemeric, Gragson Happy to Be BackAlex Slitz - Getty Images
  • John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric are back in the NASCAR Cup Series after stints in the NASCAR Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series.

  • Noah Gragson is back after a suspension.

  • Mark Martin knows what it's like and how to make the most of a second chance.

Not everyone gets a second chance at a career in stock car racing’s top echelon, but this season three drivers possess another opportunity to achieve success in NASCAR’s Cup Series.

John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric are back after stints in the NASCAR Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series. Noah Gragson received a reinstatement from NASCAR after being suspended indefinitely for using an insensitive meme on social media after last year’s 22nd Cup race.


Whenever I see drivers getting a second chance in NASCAR’s premier series, I always think of Mark Martin. The Arkansas native made his NASCAR debut in 1981 after winning three American Speed Association championships. Despite earning top-five and top-10 finishes in 1982-83, Martin couldn’t get a foothold in the sport. None of the top team owners during that era wanted to hire Martin because they believed he didn’t possess the physical stamina to make it through a 500-mile race due to his small stature.

mark martin 6
Mark Martin tuned a second chance into a Hall of Fame career in the NASCAR Cup Series.Jonathan Ferrey - Getty Images

After going broke and selling everything he owned, Martin returned to the ASA, won another championship, kicked alcoholism, and developed an obsession for fitness. Team owner Jack Roush gave Martin his second chance. The then 29-year-old Martin put a chokehold on that second opportunity and never let go. Even though he never won a Cup championship, he recorded 40 Cup victories, 49 in the Xfinity Series, seven in Trucks, and five IROC championships.

This year Stewart-Haas Racing, Kaulig Racing and Legacy Motor Club are providing the second chances for Gragson, Hemric and Nemechek, respectively.

In the 2024 season’s first three races, Gragson is the only one to produce two top-10 finishes while Nemechek has recorded one. Hemric has yet to finish in the top 10, but he has placed in the top 20 in all three. With the exception of Gragson’s 36th-place finish at Atlanta due to a crash, all three drivers have performed better in the season’s first three races than they did in their initial forays into Cup.

Hemric’s first full-time season in Cup came in 2019 with Richard Childress Racing. That year’s first three races were identical to this year’s—Daytona, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. Hemric’s average finish that year was 25.7. This year it’s 17.7.

One year later, in 2020, Nemechek competed in his first full-time Cup season with Front Row Motorsports. That year the season’s first three races were Daytona, Las Vegas and Fontana, Calif. His average finish was 20th. This year, Nemechek’s average finish in Cup has been 16.7.

auto mar 03 nascar cup series pennzoil 400 presented by jiffy lube
Noah Gragson says team co-owner Tony Stewart has been a big influence.Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

Gragson’s first three races in his inaugural Cup season were identical to those faced by Nemechek. His average finish in 2023 was 25.3. This year, his average finish is 17th.

Even though SHR didn’t record a Cup victory last year, Gragson likes the energy at the shop, the fact he gets to be himself, and he feels wanted and appreciated. He cites team co-owner Tony Stewart as being a “big influence” on him, and being able to lean on Stewart for advice has been “very important” to him. Gragson also feels more comfortable in the Ford Mustang Dark Horse than he did in last year’s Chevrolet Camaro at Legacy Motor Club.

Nemechek’s second chance meant replacing Gragson at Legacy, which switched to Toyota this year. It’s an OEM Nemechek has been with since 2021 when he went back to the Truck series and drove a Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He remained with Toyota last year when he represented Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series. It’s a path Nemechek believes has been beneficial since he has acquired 15 victories—eight Xfinity and 7 truck—in the last three years. It was a three-year period that allowed him to build confidence and experience.

auto mar 03 nascar cup series pennzoil 400 presented by jiffy lube
Daniel Hemric found that long careers in the NASCAR Cup Series are not guaranteed.Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

In retrospect, Hemric is thankful for his inaugural trip to the Cup Series, but “at the end of the day, you want to be needed, you want to be wanted and I wasn’t in that particular situation.”

Initially, Hemric believed once a driver made it to the Cup Series, the person would be there for a long time. He learned that wasn’t the case. However, he now thinks he’s a “better person, a better father, a better racer.” He doesn’t have the expectation he did in 2019, but, instead, comes into his second chance with a “thankful kind of grace.”

As Gragson puts it, “I’m just grateful to be back.”

Like Martin with Roush, the three drivers know it’s now or never because there won’t be a third opportunity.