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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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After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.