Every few years, an underrated driver appears on the NASCAR radar. Sometimes, they are in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
But this time around, there is a young man who is outperforming just about everyone when he straps behind the wheel of an XFINITY Series racecar. That fellow’s name is Ryan Preece, who Jeff Gordon once nicknamed “the modified guy.”
Preece is one of the most charismatic people in the NASCAR garage, and he’s certainly well-liked amongst his peers. Well, besides Elliott Sadler.
Other than that, racers genuinely think he’s a great guy, mainly because he is.
He went from having just a few thousand dollars in sponsorship money, running for a mid-level XFINITY Series team, to being smart and taking that money elsewhere. Specifically, he brought it to Joe Gibbs Racing, only scheduled to run a pair of races.
But it’s what happened after those two contests that show Preece is clearly underrated, and he deserves more than just 10 races with one of the sport’s best organizations.
On the Cup side of the spectrum, another Ryan is doing pretty darn well.
Ryan Blaney is off to an amazing start to his first year with Team Penske. In just eight contests this season, he’s already led more laps (364) than all of last year (301).
While Blaney is on pace to not only make the playoffs but to contend for the title, he is still missing a triumph. After leading over 100 circuits in three races, that win is coming.
Q: After Ryan Preece’s win at Bristol, it’s clear he’s underrated. Why is that? – James A., Riverhead, N.Y.
A: The modified guys are usually underrated. One can compare the start of his career to Martin Truex Jr.
Truex went from local modified racing to the K&N Pro Series East before his rise to NASCAR’s top divisions. Similar to Truex, Preece made his way up through the rankings to go from local racing to the XFINITY Series. He even made five Cup Series starts in 2015 after losing a bet to then team owner Tommy Baldwin, who paired Preece with Jay Robinson.
Preece is a special talent, but not many people heard of him until he earned his shot with JGR. His time with JD Motorsports wasn’t astonishing, averaging a finish of 23rd in his lone full-time XFINITY Series season. However, he did have a handful of solid runs, enough to impress the JGR folks.
It’s not like just anyone can get in a JGR car. The team requires actual talent, on top of the usual thousands of dollars needed to fund a premier effort.
In Preece’s first race with the team, he finished second to teammate Kyle Busch, who barely anyone can beat, to begin with. Yeah, it was pretty shocking for those unfamiliar with Preece. But for those who have seen him race, they knew he was capable of running great given the equipment.
Fast forward to 2018 and Preece is living the dream. He might not be racing full-time, but that’s OK. Clearly, that time is going to come if he keeps this pace up.
In three contests this year, he’s finished in the top 10 each time. His worst finish of ninth came in his first race of the year at Auto Club Speedway. After that, he earned a top five at Texas Motor Speedway, followed by his second XFINITY Series victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.
— BristolMotorSpeedway (@BMSupdates) April 14, 2018
But even when Preece pulled into Victory Lane this past Saturday, people were still surprised.
They shouldn’t be.
He’s a premier driver in astonishing equipment. Anything less is disappointing now for him, and that says a lot coming from a guy that ran in the mid-20s less than two years ago.
It’s another story of an unknown driver making a name for himself. Finally, he’s getting the recognition he deserves. Hopefully, it will lead to something more than a mere 10 events to showcase how talented he is.
Q: Is Ryan Blaney a championship favorite? – Nancy F., San Francisco
A: At the beginning of the season, I put Blaney on my Championship 4 list during our first edition of the Frontstretch Podcast.
Blaney is the real deal, and moving from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske is going to make him go from being a solid driver to an elite one. The difference is already clear, with three top fives and five top 10s through eight contests.
He should have won this past weekend at Bristol, dominating the first portion of the race before getting caught up in Trevor Bayne’s mess on lap 117. He also could have won the Daytona 500, but he dropped to seventh in the closing laps after leading a race-high 118 circuits.
Oh, and let’s not forget he led another 145 markers at Martinsville Speedway en route to a third-place result, his best of the year thus far.
The No. 12 team’s consistency is largely thanks to Penske keeping Blaney with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. The duo has been working together since 2014, and they are getting better each year.
Expect Blaney to not only win a race in the upcoming weeks but to earn several trophies this year.
This team is eager to visit Victory Lane, and it is quite clear that will happen sooner rather than later. What Blaney needs to do, though, is be mistake-free. He needs to be methodical in his approach and try to figure out why this car has speed mid-race but loses just a tad bit of velocity when the checkered flag nears. That will be the difference between a top five and a win, and that’s what he needs to figure out.
Once this guy gets a win, the rest of the field better watch out, because not much else will stop him.
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