Sometimes life does give you a second chance.
In 2015 a relatively unknown name to NASCAR Nation and started in five Cup races and finished all of them with an average finish 37.0. Stats wise that was entirely unremarkable and our Sunday coverage team blinked and turned away. However, the driver wasn’t done and picked up by running the entire XFINITY Series in 2016, ending up with a 23.0 average finish and ranked 17th in the points race. Again, it was another fine example of underachievement. As such, nobody paid much attention when the driver left this team and headed back to the regional series they had headlined for a decade.
So, why would this same driver’s random appearance in the XFINITY Series in 2017 garner any kind of attention, let alone steal the limelight normally reserved for Kyle Busch? Well, just ask the winner of Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 presented by American Ethanol at Iowa Speedway. In just three short weeks, Ryan Preece has launched from a back marker to the lead story in the second tier racing series.
The secret is actually simpler than the fact that Preece is finally demonstrating his talents for the camera. Basically, he got himself in a new ride worthy of his talent. Starting at New Hampshire, the Connecticut born Whelen Modified Tour sensation has been sitting behind the wheel of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota. I swear there must have been a huge PR campaign that notified the television, radio, and print media of Ryan Preece’s second time around in the big show, because even when he wasn’t leading the race, every broadcaster has been talking about him to the point that the audience was beginning to grumble.
The No. 20 often is paired alongside the No. 18, and just like in the MENCS, whoever happens to sit behind the wheel of these XFINITY machines, they have an excellent chance of taking the day. Due to their consistent success and familiar characters running the shops, those circulating drivers don’t just get a chance to showcase their driving chops, they are gifted the real benefit of carefully orchestrated media appearances supported by the brightest talents in the business.
Nothing had materially changed in Ryan Preece prior to Saturday’s race. He’s the same kid who has finished in the top two of the Whelen Modified Tour standings five times in 10 years, earning the Championship title in 2013. He led more than 2,000 laps in four seasons while in another three years he lagged behind that marker by just a couple hundred laps. He has knocked well-established talents off the top of their game and sent other aging drivers into retirement. This 26 year old was and is part of the youth talent search NASCAR has been conducting, building a loyal following through his exemplary driving ability week in and week out.
But it took an opportunity with a top tier Cup team to make the world sit up and take notice.
This entire scenario underlines why there are about 15 competitive teams running for the Cup, and always will be. The rest of the field is literally window dressing for the big show. Yes, managing to climb out of your local racing series and break into the national scene is much like winning the daily numbers. But landing an audition with a major team like Gibbs is more akin to winning the Powerball.
Ryan Preece just kept playing the lottery until his number came up. He has the talent. He just needed the racing gods to shine that spotlight on him while Coach was looking in his direction.
Now the question remains, was this summer showcase enough to make a run at the Cup series in 2018 something worth pursuing? I’m all a flutter waiting to find out.
From the cute and cuddly file, here’s a quick YouTube of two of the best internet things combined: kittens and auto racing. Enjoy!
PS. Thanks for your fan feedback! I love to hear from you, no matter the number you wear on your hat.
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