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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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NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge continues at 7 pm ET on NBCSN

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After its debut Monday night, the iRacing component of Racing Week in America on NBCSN continues tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

The NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge began on a virtual Rockingham Speedway, with William Byron sweeping the two heat races and Kyle Busch receiving the Peacock Provisional from Steve Letarte.

The next round of the challenge will be held on a virtual Lucas Oil Raceway, a 0.686-mile track located outside Indianapolis that hosted the Xfinity Series from 1982-2011 and the Truck Series from 1995-2011.

Wednesday night’s races will be at a virtual Myrtle Beach Speedway.

The winners of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night’s races will advance to the championship round, Thursday night on a virtual Martinsville Speedway.

Here is the driver lineup for the remaining nights:

Tuesday at Lucas Oil Raceway: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Harrison Burton, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Wednesday at Myrtle Beach Speedway: Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Timmy Hill, Ryan Preece and Myatt Snider.

How NASCAR tracks are helping during COVID-19 pandemic

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With COVID-19 pandemic continuing to take a toll on the world, more NASCAR tracks are stepping up to help out local communities in their time of need.

They join Charlotte Motor Speedway, which became the first professional sports facility in the country to host a COVID-19 test site starting last month, while Eldora Speedway in Ohio donated almost 3,000 face masks to its surrounding commmunity.

Here’s a look at tracks that are helping out:

Atlanta Motor Speedway

The track in Hampton, Georgia, has announced an American Red Cross blood drive on May 4.

The drive will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s Tara Ballroom, located within the AMS Condo Building at 1500 Tara Place.

To ensure all participants have the opportunity to donate upon arrival, donations for the blood drive will be done by appointment only.

Red Cross employees have implemented additional precautions to ensure blood drives and donation centers are safe for donors and staff and reduce potential exposure to COVID-19.

To make an appointment use the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or calling 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

Each donor will receive a discount coupon to the AMS Gift Shop and photos with the AMS pace car. To prepare to give blood, the Red Cross recommends donors eat iron-rich meals and drink plenty of water. A photo ID will also be needed upon arrival.

To donate please visit RedCrossBlood.org and enter sponsor code “atlantaspeedway” and choose the donation time that works best for you.

Martinsville Speedway

Starting Wednesday, Martinsville Speedway in Virginia will be a COVID-19 test site.

The site will be open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12-4 p.m. ET.

Individuals to be tested must be a resident of Martinsville City, Henry County, or Patrick County.

They will not be admitted to the testing site unless it has received proper documentation from a physician.

Click here for more.

Talladega Superspeedway

The track in Alabama will host a by-appointment blood drive on Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. ET.

It will take place at the the International Motorsports Hall of Fame’s Fox Sports 1 dome, which is outside the entrance of the track.

These are the precautions that are being taken according to the St. Clair News-Aegis:

  • All individuals will have their temperatures taken before entering the blood drive, including staff and volunteers
  • Additional spacing between beds and stations that go above social distancing guidelines
  • No more than 15 people will be allowed in the venue at a time (includes donors, staff & volunteers)
  • Reinforcing existing and introducing new safety protocols including wearing gloves, routinely wiping down donor-touched areas, using sterile collection sets for every donation, and preparing the arm for donation with an aseptic scrub
  • Having hand sanitizer available

To make an appointment to donate, download the Red Cross Blood Donor App, visit RedCrossBlood.org or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) sponsor code: TALLADEGA.

Texas Motor Speedway

The track in North Texas hosted a blood drive last week that collected 32 pints of blood from more than 30 donors, an amount that can help up to 96 patients.

Homestead-Miami Speedway

As a result of a $40,000 donation made because of its eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race a few weeks ago, the track was able to distribute food and supplies to 1,000 families in its community through Farm Share.

Jeff Burton, Dale Jr., Carl Edwards on NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot for 2021

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NASCAR on NBC analysts Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. head a list of five newcomers nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which has revamped its balloting process for the 2021 class.

Carl Edwards, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews also are first-time nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is splitting its ballot into three categories this year: Modern, Pioneer and Landmark.

Burton and Earnhardt both had winning careers in NASCAR’s top series before entering the broadcast booth.

MORE: Dale Jr. Pondered Hall Nomination in January

Burton, who was nicknamed “The Mayor” by former teammate Clint Bowyer because of his ambassadorial and leadership skills, has 21 Cup victories, including the 1999 Southern 500 and two Coca-Cola 600s (1999, ’01). The South Boston, Virginia, native also has 27 Xfinity Series victories.

Earnhardt, who was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 15 times by fans, has 26 Cup victories (including the 2004 and ’14 Daytona 500s). He won consecutive Xfinity Series championships in 1998-99.

Edwards had 28 Cup victories and two runner-up points finishes in a full-time career from 2005-16. He also won the 2007 Xfinity Series championship before making the stunning decision to retire at 37 more than three years ago.

Among other notables: crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine returns after being left off the 2020 ballot, and Janet Guthrie is back on the Landmark ballot after a one-year absence.

Sam Ard, Ray Fox, John Holman, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal and Red Vogt fell off the 2021 ballot after being nominated last year.

Under a new structure announced by NASCAR in February, there will be two entries chosen from 10 Modern candidates, one entry apiece from five candidates in the Pioneer and Landmark categories. Modern candidates are eligible to be on the ballot 10 times (which is retroactive to the start of the Hall of Fame vote in 2009).

There is no limit to the eligibility for the Pioneer and Landmark awards. Competitors are eligible for the Modern ballot if their careers started within the last 60 years; Pioneer if their careers began prior to 60 years ago.

Modern era driver and crew chief nominees must have competed in NASCAR for 10 years and have been retired for two. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were elected the past two years in their first year of eligibility. Earnhardt became eligible this year.

Next year, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth will be eligible for the first time.

Last year, the NASCAR Hall of Fame inducted Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Buddy Baker and Waddell Wilson.

Voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame usually happens on the Wednesday before the Coca-Cola 600. A NASCAR spokesman told NBCSports.com that there was no update on when the 2021 Voting Day would be scheduled or whether it would be held virtually.

In the first 11 classes of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the top five vote-getters were inducted annually from a nominee list that initially was 25 and was shortened to 20 since the 2015 class.

Here is the ballot for the 2021 class:

Modern era (10): Neil Bonnett, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik.

Pioneer (5): Jake Elder, Red Farmer, Banjo Matthews, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody.

Landmark (5): Janet Guthrie, Alvin Hawkins, Mike Helton, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, Ralph Seagraves.

Here is the breakdown of how the ballot from 2021 differs from last year’s ballot and here is a Twitter thread that helps explain the changes to the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting process:

On the 2020 ballot, not on 2021: Sam Ard (once on ballot, 2020); Ray Fox (eight years on ballot, 2013-20); John Holman (two years on ballot, 20019-20); Marvin Panch (once on ballot, 2020); Jim Paschal (once on ballot, 2020); Red Vogt (once on ballot, 2020).

On the 2021 ballot, not on 2020: In the Modern category, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Kirk Shelmerdine (returning after being on the 2019 ballot). In the Pioneer category, Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews.

Modern carryovers from the 2020 to the 2021 ballot (with remaining ballot eligibility): In the modern category, Neil Bonnett (eligible for nine more appearances after being on 2020 ballot); Harry Gant (eligible for eight more appearances after being on 2019-20 ballots); Harry Hyde (eligible for five more appearances after being on 2016-2020 ballots); Larry Phillips (eligible for two more appearances after being on 2013-2020 ballots); Ricky Rudd (eligible for six more appearances after being on 2017-2020 ballots); Mike Stefanik (eligible for four more appearances after being on 2015-2020 ballots)

–Pioneer carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Red Farmer; Hershel McGriff; Ralph Moody.

–Landmark carryovers (no limit on ballot eligibility): Alvin Hawkins; Mike Helton; Doc Mattioli; Ralph Seagraves

–Landmark returnee: Janet Guthrie (absent from 2020 ballot)

Twists and Turns Tuesday takes center stage on NBCSN

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The 2018 debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval was among the most anticipated races in years and delivered in ways few could have imagined.

Relive all the excitement and energy again as NBCSN airs that race at 8 p.m. ET today as part of Twists and Turns Tuesday during Racing Week in America.

Ryan Blaney‘s victory in the inaugural Cup race at the Roval was just a small part of a dramatic last lap that saw Jimmie Johnson make contact with Martin Truex Jr. on the final corner while racing for the lead and Kyle Larson‘s remarkable wall-banging last lap to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

That’s just a part of Twists and Turns Tuesday.

From city streets to massive dirt jumps, NBCSN will showcase the best twists and turns that motorsports have to offer starting at 1 p.m. ET. Twists and Turns Tuesday includes a return to IndyCar Victory Lane for NBC Sports’ own James Hinchcliffe at iconic Long Beach; and the closest finish in Supercross history from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Here is today’s schedule:

COVERAGE TIME (ET) NETWORK
IMSA – Long Beach 2019 1 p.m. NBCSN
INDYCAR – Long Beach 2017 3 p.m. NBCSN
NBC eSports Short Track iRacing Challenge – Lucas Oil Raceway 7 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL 2018 8 p.m. NBCSN
NASCAR – Watkins Glen 2017 10 p.m. NBCSN
Supercross – Arlington 2019 12 a.m. NBCSN
Monster Jam World Finals 2019 2 a.m. NBCSN