HOMESTEAD, Fla. – A content Daniel Hemric opened a few more eyes Sunday night en route to clinching Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Hemric hovered just outside the top 10 for most of the Ford EcoBoost 400, staying on the lead lap or just off it even as the Toyotas of Martin Truex Jr., and later eventual winner Kyle Busch, dominated up front.
A timely fight to hold the free-pass position at the end of the first stage paid off with Hemric returning to the lead lap in 14th, and once he got back in touch with the frontrunners Hemric hung on for nearly the rest of the night.
Busch ultimately lapped Hemric in the waning moments, but not before Hemric was able to notch a 12th-place finish – his best run in 12 races, going back to a similar finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in August.
After ending up tied in points with Ryan Preece – his rival for top rookie honors – coming down to the final few races of the year, Hemric knew he had to push hard down the stretch, and that’s exactly what he did.
“It’s pretty special, to say the least,” Hemric noted. “I wish we were able to win Rookie of the Year and have a couple more solid finishes throughout the year than what we had, but myself and Preece somehow ended up tied with four or five races to go, so we knew we had to buckle down. I’m really proud of this group for doing that. It’s tough for them, obviously, with me announcing my plans over the last couple days, a lot of those guys’ future is unknown. It would have been easy for them to lay down, and they didn’t. They kept continuing to put their best effort in every single week.
“I’m just proud of those guys and the heart they continue to fight with,” he continued. “A lot of really important people in our sport have been able to take these honors home, so I’m going to take pride in the Rookie of the Year title and look forward to the next chapter.”
Hemric entered the finale leading Preece by 10 points, so any issues would have opened the door for Preece to pounce, but the Kannapolis, N.C., native didn’t let that happen.
His No. 8 Chevrolet outran Preece’s No. 47 Chevrolet all night long, assuring the final outcome.
“Trust me, I wish it wouldn’t have been as close as it was. We had to sweat way too much over the last two or three months, but the dedication these guys committed to sticking to and putting the time and effort in was cool. To see everyone really latch on to what the Rookie of the Year battle was felt neat.
“We were fortunate enough to come out on top tonight, but I have a ton of respect for Preece tonight. That guy has devoted his life, as well as his family devoted their lives, to racing,” Hemric added. “To see a guy like that have the opportunity he has, I’m pulling for him next year to continue to be better, and hopefully I can get back to this level and show I belong here.”
While he was pleased with the speed his team ended the year with, Hemric still felt some disappointment that they couldn’t find that pace together sooner than they did.
“It’s bittersweet, for sure,” Hemric admitted. “You want to go out on a good note for sure, but a spade being a spade … there’s so many different paths you can go down as a race team, from car builds to downforce to drag and all that stuff, and I felt like when we brought the car, I felt like what I needed in the seat of the race car, what I felt like I wanted and I needed week in and week out, we (only) brought that particular type of race car four times out of 36 weeks. That’s frustrating.
“But I’m glad we were able to at least rally and at least stay committed to the path of bringing the best piece possible to Homestead. Those guys could have just said, ‘hey, we’ve got a car built already with a different body, we’ll come down here and see what happens,’ but that’s not what they did,” Hemric continued. “I hate to whine about that, but I just wish we had a little more of a fair shake at it.
“That’s life, though. “I’m not going to cry about it and not going to lose sleep over it. It’s just part of it.”
Hemric will drop down from the Cup Series in 2020 and race the majority of next year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving 21 races for JR Motorsports in the No. 8 Chevrolet Camaro and splitting time with Jeb Burton and team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While it’s a step back that he didn’t want to have to take, Hemric is eager for the upcoming opportunity.
“I’m really pumped up, starting right now, about getting to work on that deal. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air knowing I’ve got the opportunity to go back and do what we’re setting up to do at JR Motorsports,” Hemric said. “Having runs like tonight make me go into the off‑season knowing I can compete and race at this level, even though I’ll be back in the Xfinity Series next year.
“We’ve got some really good tracks lined up on the schedule that we’re still somewhat putting together, but there’s a lot of opportunity there to go out and perform, and there’s no gray area,” he added. “They know why I’m coming there. They know my goal is to get back to this level, and I feel like it’ll be a full-force effort to get me back.”