Top Dog: Ryan Preece
While the large majority of attention was justifiably on Championship 4 contenders, the underdogs of the NASCAR Cup Series sought to finish off their 2021 seasons strong at Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 7). The action matched the desert heat throughout the field, unfortunately scorching a few underdogs in catastrophic ways.
Several of them either crashed out or experienced setbacks in a rough race for underfunded teams. Outlasting them all was perhaps the underdog facing the most uncertainty: Ryan Preece. Preece headed into the 312-lap event with his future hanging in the balance, his No. 37 JTG Daugherty Racing team closing up shop after the season. When will he be back behind the wheel of a Cup car? It could be next year, it could be multiple seasons, and it is very possible that it may never happen again.
But Preece is too talented to pass up on, and I have a feeling he will prove that in whatever ride he secures for next season. For now, he did what NASCAR drivers do: focus on what is in front of them. No, he didn’t make the playoffs. No, he had an extremely slim chance to win. And yes, this was his final race with JTG Daugherty after three years with their program. However, there was still a race to run and pride on the line for all involved.
At Phoenix, it was a top 20 that Preece earned in the end. While his underdog competitors fell victim to contact and tire blowouts, Preece endured to earn a solid result. It was an overall quiet day for the 31-year-old, as he spent much of the race trying to find grip outside the top 20. After moving up steadily in the final stage, the Berlin, Conn. native stayed there to grab his 13th top 20 of the season.
After starting the year out with back-to-back top 10s, Preece had a quiet year. However, he earned a career high in top 10s (four) and average finish (24.0). It was a definite improvement from a difficult 2020 but for JTG Daugherty, it wasn’t enough to keep him on board for 2022.
Outside of the Cup Series, Preece had a memorable year. In his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start, Preece won at Nashville Superspeedway, becoming one of five first-time winners in the series this season. Additionally, he won three straight NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races which involved some thrilling finishes.
All told, Preece is a driver who has a lot of talent, no matter what he is behind the wheel of. The former Modified star should have his phone ringing for a ride in a lower series, looking to reset his career and contend for wins elsewhere come 2022.
Outside of Preece, there were not too many noteworthy runs by the other underdogs. Daniel Suarez was behind Preece in 21st, followed by Erik Jones (22nd) and Michael McDowell (23rd). Corey LaJoie, Anthony Alfredo, Quin Houff and Bubba Wallace all suffered crashes throughout the race, ending the days for three of those drivers. But one race does not define the year as a whole for underdogs. Here are some highlights.
It started off in the most illustrious way for this group, a true Cinderella story. Michael McDowell defied the odds and avoided last-lap chaos to fit the glass slipper and win the Daytona 500, his first career Cup victory. The win sealed McDowell’s spot in the playoffs, the second-ever appearance for Front Row Motorsports. He was eliminated in the Round of 16, but the opening moment of 2021 shone on a veteran driver who had experienced it all during a career once spent start-and-parking.
McDowell wasn’t the only dog to find victory lane. In Kaulig Racing’s second year making part-time appearances, road course ace and NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender AJ Allmendinger marked the rapid yet patient rise we have seen from Kaulig in its short history. Allmendinger picked up a wild win in the inaugural road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was Allmendinger’s second career victory and another defining moment of his effort to aid this growing team in their move up into the Cup Series.
Not one, not two, but three underdogs broke through for a win in 2021. To cap it off, Bubba Wallace earned an emotional, rain-shortened victory at Talladega Superspeedway. So many takeaways and moments were drawn from it, as Wallace earned 23XI Racing and co-owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin their first victory as a team. With Kurt Busch coming on for 2022, this group is one that has a lot of excitement and momentum for their future.
Winning wasn’t the only defining moment for the underdogs. In addition to 23XI Racing, Trackhouse Racing Team also came on full-time in 2021 as one of NASCAR’s newest organizations. Owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, the No. 99 made a lot of waves this season, sparking new interest and taking unorthodox routes to have their shining moments.
TRT’s driver, Daniel Suarez, had a career-reviving season in a sense after experiencing many downs the past couple of years. On top of it all, perhaps, the team significantly boosted the outlook of their future, purchasing all assets from Chip Ganassi Racing and signing Ross Chastain. CGR ends their presence in NASCAR after a 20-year run, and now, their legacy will be continued by Trackhouse.
Wallace’s victory at Talladega was surprisingly the last of a historic weekend. In the NCWTS race, underdog Tate Fogleman survived a crash-filled finish to earn his first career win. Hours later, journeyman Brandon Brown grabbed his first career NXS victory in a darkness-shortened event. And how about Jeremy Clements? The veteran driver made the underdog highlights by pointing his way into the NXS playoffs after a career year.
There were many exciting moments in 2021 surrounding the underdogs, and I would run out of space to mention them all. Whether it was the beginning of Live Fast Motorsports, Erik Jones’ first season at Richard Petty Motorsports, LaJoie joining Spire Motorsports, Starcom Racing’s last season as a chartered team, James Davison’s “gnarly” save in the Coca-Cola 600, or Cinderella playoff runs, so many memories were created by the journeymen of NASCAR.
Small Team Scheme of the Week… and Year
In the last week of the season (I still can’t believe it), many teams had fresh drip to finish the year out. Anthony Alfredo’s No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, brought the heat several times in 2021. At Phoenix, it included a new scheme with sponsor Boot Barn coming on board. Unfortunately, Alfredo suffered a hard crash on lap 249 that ended his day.
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) November 7, 2021
As for the season, I could sit all day and list a bunch of candidates for this award. However, one team that never disappointed in the scheme department was Trackhouse Racing Team. They cashed in early and often with the No. 99 CommScope Chevrolet, one of the sport’s nicest primary sponsor schemes. I didn’t always pick it just to keep things fresh, but it was one of the best-looking cars all season.
Talladega. It’s time. @CommScope
— Daniel Suárez (@Daniel_SuarezG) April 25, 2021
What to Expect Next
Phoenix was the curtain call on the 2021 season. Next year, NASCAR will have a completely different look… and chassis. The Next Gen car will officially make its debut at the Busch Light Clash at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in February. The cars feature numbers pushed forward, more stock-looking bodies, a single lug nut, and many other futuristic changes.
Aside from the car, there will be several driver moves surrounding the underdogs. Both 23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing Team will likely take the next step up, their multi-car growth causing them to leave this group. The futures of both Preece and Alfredo are up in the air as we await confirmation on their future employment.
Meanwhile, Team Hezeburg joins Kaulig Racing as a new team in 2022 with Loris Hezemans behind the wheel. How many cars Rick Ware Racing fields is still a question mark. As with any other year, a training course will need to be taken to learn all the changes for next season (just kidding).
To all of the loyal readers out there who kept this column going strong, thank you so much. Just remember… the little dog is always in the fight.
What They’re Saying
Thank you @RyanPreece_ for your dedication, leadership and friendship during your time behind the wheel of the No. 37. We appreciate you and have gratitude for the accomplishments made by you, crew chief @wtrentowens and the entire team. Good luck today @phoenixraceway! pic.twitter.com/YHbfpILY90
— JTG Daugherty Racing (@JTGRacing) November 7, 2021
Well this is it. One last Sunday of racing.
It's been a season to remember and y'all have been a part of all of it. Grateful for all of your support — let's go out and make a little more noise.
Season finale coming up next. pic.twitter.com/yk7Z5G8mGg
— 23XI Racing (@23XIRacing) November 7, 2021
— Justin Marks (@JustinMarksDG) November 7, 2021
Not the season finale we hoped for but I am very proud and thankful to @Team_FRM. It has been an incredible season one we will never forget. Thank you to all of our partners. Looking forward to testing the Next Gen car in a few weeks and getting prepared for 2022. #OffSeason pic.twitter.com/hazZRWlLGY
— Michael McDowell (@Mc_Driver) November 8, 2021
Huge hit today. Cut a left front tire down in the final stage. Sad to end the season this way. The amount of uncontrollable incidents this year is unfathomable. Doing my best to remember God has a plan. https://t.co/jIe2g83BWF
— Anthony Alfredo (@anthonyalfredo) November 8, 2021
The final checkered flag has waved on the 2021 season. So proud of what this team has accomplished since December 1st, 2020.
Thank you to everyone who has been a part of it! pic.twitter.com/ga718XlLQe
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) November 8, 2021
It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to our StarCom Racing fans. After the championship this weekend, our #00 charter will take new ownership. Thank you so much to all our fans for the fun memories and loyal support over the years! #z00m pic.twitter.com/VPVmegCuDQ
— StarCom Racing (@StarcomRacing) November 5, 2021
There she is, the final Gen 6 hot rod after a tough 312 laps in the desert.
End of an era, start of a new one ? pic.twitter.com/ofhaIhgjlp
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) November 8, 2021
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