For the past several years, Ryan Preece has been forging a pathway to the national levels of NASCAR. He demonstrated his talent in the Whelen Modified Tour, winning 12 times in 56 races from 2012-2015. But when it came time to take on NASCAR’s XFINITY Series, Preece needed a way to increase his visibility on a national scale.
Beginning in 2016, Preece became a regular NXS competitor with JD Motorsports. He was able to secure enough funding to run the full schedule in JDM’s No. 01 car. Unfortunately, full-season funding did not equal race-winning speed, though. The No. 01 team ran mid-pack most weeks, and Preece never came close to being a threat for the first XFINITY Series playoffs.
For 2017, Preece could have gone back to JDM, but he decided to seek out opportunities with some of the bigger teams. Most of those organizations were looking for drivers with more funding than what Preece could provide. Eventually, he struck a deal with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 20 car for a handful of NXS races. He gambled that a few races in great equipment, instead of a full season in average equipment, would open more doors for him in the future.
We know now that Preece’s gamble paid off. During a press conference on Friday, JTG Daugherty introduced Preece as the new driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet. Preece will replace AJ Allmendinger in 2019 and compete full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
In light of Friday’s announcement, it seems obvious that running part-time with JGR was what Preece should have done all along. However, choosing to miss races comes with a significant risk. Even if Preece was not able to challenge for wins with JDM, he was a reliable presence in the XFINITY garage each and every week. He was also able to gain valuable track time at a variety of speedways all over the country. If Preece had a bad race one week, he always had the opportunity to do better next time.
Stepping into a JGR entry was more of a sink or swim situation. Originally, Preece’s only races for 2017 were at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway. His entire future in NASCAR essentially hinged on those two races. Of course, Preece performed spectacularly in those events, finishing second at New Hampshire and winning at Iowa. Those performances earned him two more starts with JGR. He earned top fives in both.
The opportunity worked out for Preece, but it could have gone poorly just as easily. Not every driver who gets a chance to race with JGR immediately becomes a contender like he did. Recall that Matt DiBenedetto’s introduction to NASCAR came as a JGR development driver. In seven starts in NASCAR’s second-tier series with JGR, DiBenedetto finished in the top 20 only three times. He wound up having to take start-and-park jobs just to save his career, and to this day DiBenedetto has never raced with a well-funded Cup Series team. Perhaps Preece, who was in his mid-20s when he took the wheel of a JGR entry for the first time, benefitted from a few more years of experience than DiBenedetto had racing with Gibbs as a teenager.
When drivers get access to top-flight equipment in the XFINITY Series, it usually comes with the expectation that they will be able to produce good results right away. That arrangement may not be fair to the drivers, but it is the reality that all of them face, especially those with limited funding. Unless you offer an NXS team a large and consistent sponsorship package, the deal is to perform or get left behind. Preece’s arrangement with JGR gave him faster cars than he had before, but racing those cars came with more pressure and different challenges than he ever would have faced with JDM.
Furthermore, being in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp did not necessarily give Preece a direct path to the Cup Series. He was able to join the broadly-defined ranks of Toyota’s driver development program. But it has become clear in the last few years that Toyota is okay with fielding more drivers in the lower divisions than it expects to reach MENCS. Erik Jones is probably the best example of a driver that JGR and Toyota have earmarked as a future cornerstone of their NASCAR efforts. Christopher Bell has become the next driver of whom both JGR and Toyota seem especially protective.
Noah Gragson, on the other hand, will leave Toyota’s driver development program soon. Gragson, who is racing for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series this year, will replace Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports in 2019. While JGR often uses KBM as its development arm, Gragson seemed to be a driver for whom Busch provided an opportunity to race, rather than JGR. William Byron took a similar path from Busch’s team to JR Motorsports and eventually the Cup Series, though it should be noted that Byron had ties to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chevrolet prior to his year with KBM.
The point is that Preece had no guarantee of being part of JGR’s or Toyota’s long-term plans. With Furniture Row Racing’s impending closure, Toyota will probably try to find a new team to switch manufacturers in the Cup Series. But either way, the number of well-funded Toyotas in NASCAR’s highest level remains limited.
JTG Daugherty Racing may not be the powerhouse that JGR is, but driving the No. 47 car is still a great deal for Preece. He will get to race every weekend in NASCAR’s top division. The team also has solid sponsorship, so Preece will not need to worry about any outside funding. Most importantly, he has demonstrated that he can win races if he has the right team supporting him. Joe Gibbs will not be the only team owner watching him in the years to come.
It is refreshing to see a driver like Preece reach the top of the NASCAR ladder. His story is that of a racer who took on a chance on himself and succeeded in a big way, with everything on the line.
That story is only just beginning.