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Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight. Preece will start from the pole, his first in the series.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

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Brad Keselowski is getting closer to reaching the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, but he remains behind Kevin Harvick, who holds the top spot for a fifth consecutive week.

Keselowski is coming off a victory last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and a contract extension, which was announced the day after the race.

Since the season resumed in May, Harvick and Keselowski have had similar stats. Harvick has four wins since May; Keselowski has three. Harvick has six finishes of third or better; Keselowski has five such finishes. Harvick has 13 top 10s in 16 races; Keselowski has the same total.

Cup heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend for a doubleheader. Saturday’s race is at 4 p.m. ET. Sunday’s race is at 4:30 p.m. ET. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Here is this week’s power rankings:

  1. Kevin Harvick (Last week: No. 1): Has seven consecutive top-five finishes and might have challenged for his fifth win of the season had a pit call not taken him out of sequence and forced him to pit under green. Good chance his streak continues this weekend at Michigan. Since the track was repaved in 2012, Harvick has 10 top-five finishes in 16 starts.
  2. Brad Keselowski (Last week: No. 2): Scores at least three wins for the fifth consecutive year. The Michigan driver has never won a Cup race at Michigan. He has three top 10s there in his last four starts. 
  3. Denny Hamlin ( Last week: No. 3): Was in contention for his sixth win of the season before losing a duel with Brad Keselowski at New Hampshire. Thirteen of the 22 lead changes were between Hamlin and Keselowski. They combined to lead 186 of the last 198 laps. He has four wins, seven finishes of third or better and 10 top 10s since the season resumed in May.
  4. Aric Almirola (Last week: No. 4): Has a career-high nine consecutive top-10 finishes. Can he make it a perfect 10 Saturday at Michigan? He has only one top 10 at the track in his last five starts. 
  5. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week: No. 7): Has three finishes of third or better in the last four races. Scored third at New Hampshire despite penalty for an uncontrolled tire. His eight top-five finishes at Michigan are second only to the nine he has had at Kansas for most among active tracks.
  6. Cole Custer (Last week: No. 5): Has four top 10s in the last five races, including his Kentucky win. 
  7. Tyler Reddick (Last week: No. 9): Has four top 10s in the last five races. He won the Michigan Xfinity race in June 2019.
  8. Joey Logano (Last week: Unranked): Has two top-five finishes in the last three races. He won at Michigan in June 2019.
  9. Chase Elliott (Last week: Unranked): Has four finishes between ninth and 12th in the last five races. 
  10. Matt DiBenedetto (Last week: Unranked): Has two finishes of sixth of better in the the last four races. 

Fell out of rankings: Kyle Busch (No. 5 last week), Austin Cindric (No. 7) and Austin Hill (No. 10)

NASCAR penalizes Xfinity owner, driver for testing violation; team will appeal

NASCAR penalizes
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Image
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NASCAR fined Xfinity car owner Mario Gosselin $50,000 and docked him 75 points for violating the private test policy last weekend at Daytona International Speedway with driver Alex Labbe.

NASCAR docked Labbe 75 points for the L2 violation. Labbe was 73 points out of the 12th and final playoff spot before the penalty.

DGM Racing stated that it will appeal the penalties. The team stated: “DGM Racing is aware of the allegations against us. We feel we followed all the proper protocol and will be appealing the penalty. We are unable to comment further. Thank you for the support we have received so far.”

The issue stems from an SCCA event last weekend on the Daytona road course that Labbe participated.

NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck teams will race for the first time on the Daytona road course this month. There will be no practice before each race. Drivers are not permitted to compete in more than one series event as a way to get extra track time.

Labbe was listed in Regional Race Group 7 in a 2019 Chevrolet Camaro. The 2019 Chevrolet Camaro is the approved model for Chevy teams in the Xfinity Series.

NASCAR viewed that as an illegal test because of the car used. Section 5.1.a of the Xfinity rule book states: “Private vehicle testing by any race team, employee,  contractor, affiliate, associate, subsidiary, or surrogate is strictly prohibited.”

Section 5.1.d of the Xfinity rule book states: NASCAR, in its sole discretion, will determine in advance what constitutes an authorized test. In general, only tests conducted under the NASCAR National Series Unified Testing policy are considered to be authorized tests.”

NASCAR also stated penalties that stem from last weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had already been announced.

Those penalties included suspensions for the New Hampshire race for crew chiefs Jerry Baxter and Ryan Sparks after ballast was found to be improperly mounted before the race. The teams also were docked 10 points and drivers Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie each were penalized 10 points.

NASCAR also stated that Clint Bowyer‘s crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, will be suspended for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) after two lug nuts were found to be not safe and secure after the race. Stewart-Haas Racing has stated that Greg Zipadelli, the team’s director of competition, will fill in for Klausmeier for Saturday’s race.

NASCAR fined crew chiefs Jeremy Bullins, James Small and Randall Burnett $10,000 each for having a lug nut not safe and secure on their car after the race.

 

‘Snowball effect’ led Bob Leavine to sell Cup team

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Seeing the “snowball effect” of a lack of sponsorship, cost for additional cars next year and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy, car owner Bob Leavine said Tuesday that it was clear that he needed to sell Leavine Family Racing.

The team announced Tuesday that it has been sold. The buyer has not been revealed.

Leavine said Tuesday that the team had 11 races available for sponsorship on rookie Christopher Bell‘s car before the coronavirus pandemic suspended the sport in March for 10 weeks. The team’s biggest sponsor, Leavine noted, was his construction company, which also has been impacted by the economic downturn brought on by the virus.

“We haven’t really sold anything and probably won’t sell anything going forward this year,” Leavine said Tuesday of sponsorship.

Leavine also cited a business model that he has been critical of, including the charter system.

Leavine Family Racing was not granted a charter but merged with Circle Sport Racing, which had a charter, for the 2016 season. The partnership ended after that season. Leavine Family Racing bought Tommy Baldwin Racing’s charter in Nov. 2016.

We definitely did not get out of our charter what we put into our charter,” said Leavine, who has not publicly revealed what was paid for the charter. “So, from our standpoint, it is very difficult to say that it was a great investment. It just allowed us to run full time for the five years after we bought it. That’s the best thing I can say for the charter system.”

Leavine Family Racing made its NASCAR debut in 2011. Christopher Bell joined the team prior to this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Another challenge was NASCAR’s move to push back the debut of the Next Gen car from 2021 to 2022. Leavine Family Racing has an affiliation with Joe Gibbs Racing this season for chassis and support but Leavine said the plan was not to continue that next year.

“We had a whole lot of things banking on the Next Gen coming in,” Leavine said. “Our deal with JGR, our affiliation required us to do certain things. We were looking forward to being a standalone team with one or two cars. So, the pandemic, and sponsorship and how it affected (his construction business), our major sponsor, and then having to come back and buy all the cars again for next year, because we had planned on not needing cars next year.

“It was a snowball effect on multiple things. We saw no way out. We could not afford the affiliation, and what we did this year, next year. That’s what we banked on. Okay, we will do this one year, run good, get our charter value up, and we had a plan. That plan came tumbling down with the pandemic. Then you take a bad business model; it doesn’t work for us.”

Leavine said he lobbied NASCAR and owners in the spring for particular changes, which he did not reveal. When those ideas were rejected, Leavine said he was “very disappointed in what came out of that meeting. I knew that was probably going to be the straw that broke our back. I had to start looking for how best do we protect our team. How best do we keep people employed. A lot of things went into that decision.”

Leavine Family Racing has competed in NASCAR since 2011, making its debut with David Starr at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9. The organization didn’t run a full schedule until 2016 with Michael McDowell and Ty Dillon splitting the ride. Others who have driven for the team include Kasey Kahne, Regan SmithMatt DiBenedetto and Bell.

I really gave it all I had for the 10 years and the last five primarily when we went full-time, and I committed, and I thought we could make a difference and be a good team,” Leavine said. “A responsible and respected team in NASCAR. To walk away and not have completed that, I’ve never had to do that before and give up on anything. But I could not let it destroy our business – a 41-year old business – in Texas during these times, so you have to protect something and that’s a profitable organization.”

NASCAR entry lists for Michigan, Road America

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The NASCAR entry lists are out for this weekend’s racing at Michigan International Speedway and Road America.

Cup and Truck teams will compete this weekend at Michigan. Cup teams will race Saturday and Sunday.

Xfinity teams will race Saturday at Road America.

Here are the preliminary NASCAR entry lists 

Cup – Firekeepers Casino 400 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Joey Gase will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing.

JJ Yeley will drive the No. 27 for Rick Ware Racing.

James Davison will be in the No. 51 for Petty Ware Racing.

Click here for Saturday Cup race entry list

 

Cup – Consumers  Energy 400 (4:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Josh Bilicki will be in the No. 7 for Tommy Baldwin Racing. That is the only change from the Saturday entry list.

Click here for Sunday Cup entry list

 

Xfinity – Henry 180 (Noon ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-seven cars are entered.

Among the drivers entered:

Mike Wallace, who made his first series start since 2015 last month in the road course race at Indianapolis, is back in the No. 0 car for JD Motorsports this weekend.

Andy Lally, a road racing expert and the 2011 Cup rookie of the year, will be in the No. 02 Our Motorsports car.

RC Enerson will make his NASCAR debut in the No. 07 SS Green Light Racing ride.

Jesse Iwuji will make his series debut in the No. 13 Motorsports Business Management car.

AJ Allmendinger will be in the No. 16 for Kaulig Racing.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

 

Truck – Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 200 (6 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered.

Cup rookie John Hunter Nemechek is entered in the No. 8 truck for NEMCO Motorsports.

David Gravel, the 2019 Knoxville Nationals winner, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 24 ride for GMS Racing.

Brennan Poole is entered in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports truck.

Jeb Burton is entered in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports ride.

Parker Kligerman is entered in the No. 75 Henderson Motorsports truck.