Things get pretty real for Ryan Preece as 2021 rolls off the grid.
Preece, 30 years old, will return to the seat of the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. which wasn’t always a sure thing. He’s not going to have an easy time of it to start the season, and it won’t get any easier if Preece misses the Daytona 500, as the No. 37 appears to be entering the season without a charter and a guaranteed spot into races. So he enters the season with a ton of pressure on his shoulders.
The third-year driver has shown ability on the superspeedways, which bodes well for racing his way into the Daytona 500. The Hendrick engine shop builds strong speedway power plants, so if Preece can keep his nose clean, he can make the show and breathe a little easier in the weeks to follow.
And writing Preece off as not being talented would be a mistake. It’s true he has struggled in Cup cars, and since that’s where he’s racing, he needs to find consistency before anything else. But he would not be the first driver to struggle in a Cup car after being very successful in another series.
A Look Back
Preece’s 2020 season wasn’t exactly a standout. The Connecticut native scored just two top-10 results last year (the fall races at Bristol Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedwa) amid eight failures to finish, five of those due to crashing out of the race. The other three were caused by mechanical failures.
Preece crashed out of the Great American Race last year (and he was far from alone in that), and two engine failures in the first six races didn’t help the cause.
Considering the level of competition in the Cup Series, finishing in the top 20 is a decent day for a smaller team like JTG Daugherty Racing. A top 15 is a really good day, and a top 10 is icing.
Preece finished in the top 20 15 times last year, but in the top 15 just five times.
The good news is that he showed consistence at the end of the year, with top-20 runs in eight of the final 10 races, including those two top 10s. That’s something to build on, a place to start.
Preece is a decent superspeedway driver, and that’s good news because he has to be. If he can avoid trouble, he can race his way into one of the four spots up for grabs in Daytona. And that’s where the team’s focus must be to kick things off. Teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a strong superspeedway racer, and that helps the No. 37.
In his two years in the Cup Series, Preece has also been very solid at Bristol, where he has a top 10 in four starts and a 16th-place average. It’s his best at any track other than Talladega, where his 11.5 average is also promising.
The other tracks where Preece showed promise last year are the flat one-mile ovals, Phoenix Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He has a win at Martinsville Speedway in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, so he knows his way around that half-mile as well.
The No. 37 team had been using a charter controlled by former NASCAR Xfinity Series owner Todd Braun and which was acquired by Spire Motorsports for the 2021 season, leaving the No. 37 without a guaranteed starting spot.
Most weeks, that may not be an issue, with 38 teams confirmed as full-time entries. But it could become one. There are already well over 40 entries for the Daytona 500, with 44-45 teams expected to show up for the Great American Race. The pressure is really on Preece from day one to make the show.
Missing Daytona could really hurt the team; due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, most races won’t hold qualifying sessions this year and will have the lineups determined by a formula that includes points position as well as the previous race finish. Missing Daytona could snowball if more than 40 cars go to Homestead-Miami Speedway the following weekend.
Daytona will certainly set the tone for the beginning of the season, but the team can’t let the year get away from them if they miss the race. They can recover, though it won’t be easy. If Preece can have a spring and summer similar to his run in the final 10 races of 2020 and the team can improve on that in the late summer and fall, they can count 2021 as a success.
Overall, this team doesn’t need to set the world on fire at any track. They need to finish races, and if they can finish a few more in the top 15 and 20, they’ll be on the right track.
Here are a few numbers: 22 wins and 103 top 10s in 159 starts, with a 9.8 career average finish and top-10 points finishes in every season where ran the full schedule. Yes, that’s the same Ryan Preece who’s a Modified champion and also has four runner-up points finishes. His first top-10 points finish in that division came at the tender age of 17. He also has a solid record in good equipment in the Xfinity Series, including two wins.
So, while it would be easy to write Preece off based on his Cup numbers after two seasons, he’s also worth keeping an eye on, because he’s shown he can be much better than his two-year Cup stint has suggested. So the question becomes whether he can do it in a Cup car, and specifically the No. 37 Cup car.
Preece knows how to race. But what he hasn’t shown, and needs to show in 2021, is that he can handle this racecar well enough to be more competitive. That begins with consistency and staying out of trouble. If he can do that, and then show improvement in finishes, he’s valuable to his team, which needs a solid driver who can post the occasional top 15.
He has backing from Kroger and probably the best equipment of the small teams with good power from Hendrick. Preece would do well to pick up some Xfinity races in a decent ride if he can, to both boost confidence and gain seat time at some tracks. It’s too soon to write Preece off right now … but the end of the year will tell the tale.