Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent
This is it.
Just 250 laps.
A track in Iowa.
The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.
The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.
The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight. Preece will start from the pole, his first in the series.
He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.
“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.
A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.
He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.
But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.
He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.
“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”
Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.
There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.
“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”
While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.
“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. “ ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”
“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.
If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.
During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.
It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”
Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.
Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.
But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.
Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.
“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”
Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.
With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.
Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.
“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”
But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.
He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.
“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”
Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.
Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.
Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.
It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.
“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. … I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”
Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.
But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”
“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”