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Friday 5: Cup rookie will ‘Turn the Page’ to new chapter

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HARRISBURG, N.C. — Wailing strands of a saxophone leap from Ryan Preece’s phone. The distinctive opening notes of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” take Preece back in time even as the NASCAR Cup rookie looks ahead.

“If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot of things I can relate to,” Preece tells NBC Sports. He speaks while seated at a table that comfortably accommodates 10 people in the competition room at JTG Daugherty Racing, his new home after running limited Xfinity races the past two years with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although Seger’s song is about a musician, it could be about the highs and lows of a racer. Preece, born 17 years after the song’s debut, has lived life in the spotlight and experienced the late-night road trips on his circuitous path to Cup.

On a long and lonesome highway

The song’s opening line resonates with Preece. The 28-year-old Connecticut native raced modifieds throughout the Northeast and traveled to the South numerous times in his quest to reach NASCAR’s premier series. There were many nights on the road.

Preece worked his way to the Xfinity Series in 2016 but had limited success with an underfunded JD Motorsports team. With no other opportunities after that season, Preece returned home and faced the likelihood he would race modifieds the rest of his career.

Things changed when Carl Edwards shocked the sport by announcing in January 2017 that he would no longer compete. Joe Gibbs Racing suddenly had some Xfinity races available.

If Edwards had not left the sport, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Preece said. 

“There was no talk of going anywhere. When I went home, I went home (after 2016). I spoke to a few teams and the (cost to run those cars) were so high. I just figured I could go make a living running a modified and winning. It wasn’t a sense of I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond … this was my best chance at being successful.”

Preece spent 2016 living in former Cup crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion’s race shop before moving back home after the season. After Edwards’ announcement, Manion called Preece and told him to contact JGR.

“I was going to figure a way out,” Preece said. “That was the chance I was waiting for.”

He gathered enough money for two races, won at Iowa and got two more races that season. That turned into 15 races in 2018. He won at Bristol. His success that season led to the ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in place of AJ Allmendinger.

When you’re ridin’ sixteen hours

and there’s nothin’ much to do

And you don’t feel much like ridin’

you just wish the trip was through

A crew member often played the song on long road trips and it has remained with Preece since, a reminder of those all-night drives from one region of the country to another to race.

As he plays the song on his phone, Preece slips back to the past. He recalls a time he raced at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, finished around 11 p.m. and drove through the night with his team to be at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a race that Saturday. He won that weekend.

Preece smiles at the memory.

Here I am

On the road again

There I am

Up on the stage

Here I go

Playin’ star again

There I go

Turn the page

“When I was younger, I was like that’s pretty catchy,’’ Preece said of the song. “As you grow older and you go through different events and different situations in your life, you start to relate to it. Every time there has been a great moment in my life, the more I can relate to that song.”

He hopes to add to the collection of memories this season with the No. 47 team. Preece is ready for the season to begin. He’ll get an early start. His team will be among those that will test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 31 – Feb. 1.

Shortly after that, he will be off to Florida to compete in his first Daytona 500.

Even as he heads on a new journey with Cup, Preece won’t leave the modified series behind. He plans to run a few races this season when his schedule allows.

But after years of going back-and-forth from the Northeast to the South, Preece has one trip left. He heads to Connecticut today to retrieve the last of his belongings and complete the move he and his wife have made to North Carolina. He also will tow his modified with him.

He plans to leave Connecticut at 3 a.m. Sunday. He knows through experience that’s the best time to depart to avoid New York traffic snarls.

One more overnight road trip. This time he’s headed for a new journey and a chance to turn the page in his racing career.

2. Study habits

Coleman Pressley admits he’s a “huge note taker” and he’s been doing just that as he reviews film and prepares for his first season as Brad Keselowski’s spotter.

Pressley, the son of former Cup driver Robert Pressley, spent the past four years spotting for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing. Pressley became available after Allmendinger was not brought back for this season.

One of the biggest challenges for Pressley will be Daytona Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. Keselowski is among the sport’s premier drivers at that track and Talladega. He and former spotter Joey Meier — they had been together since 2006 until parting after last year — were among the top driver/spotter duos, winning four of the last 17 plate races (only teammate Joey Logano matches Keselowski’s record in that span).

Pressley, who doesn’t have as much experience spotting a car at the front of the field at a plate track, has been studying how the race is different there than in the middle of the field.

“I went to school the last two or three weeks just learning what the first two or three rows do,” Pressley told NBC Sports. “It’s amazing how much the draft changes in the first three rows then it does in the 10th or 12th row. I’m learning from arguably the best superspeedway racer right now.

“I feel like I’ve learned more in two or three times sitting down with Brad than in four years of spotting. He’s that good at it. It’s like dealing with AJ at a road course. AJ is so good at a road course, I learned a lot from him there.”

One of the challenges with racing at Daytona is how the lead car controls the field and moves up and down the track, blocking the run from the cars in the lanes behind. It’s critical for the spotter to tell the driver which lane is making a move so the driver can block and remain in the lead.

“Everything that we’re reviewing is more situational,” Pressley said. “Like what happens when three cars are this close and this lane is a car length apart. … Does this change if you’ve got a slower car third in line or what happens if there’s three lanes. We’re trying to make sure that when we get there, when I’m on the roof, that when I see something I know what is going to happen.”

Pressley already has watched last year’s Daytona 500 multiple times and planned to watch the race with Keselowski this week.

3. Caution laps won’t count

South Boston Speedway will not count caution laps this season for its local division races 150 laps and shorter, the track announced this week.

It’s an interesting concept. While it’s not something that could be done for a 500-lap Cup race, maybe it is something to ponder for the K&N Pro Series. Possibly a Truck race. Or maybe don’t count caution laps in the last 50 laps of a Cup or Xfinity race at a short track.

Maybe that is extreme, but with NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last fall that “everything is in play” when examining the sport, why not consider such an idea?

Cathy Rice, general manager at South Boston Speedway, a .4-mile track, told NBC Sports that the change — caution laps did not count previously for local races 75 laps or less — was made to give fans more racing.

What if the race has several cautions and the night stretches on? Rice, entering her 31st season at South Boston, said they would shorten the event. It goes back to her belief that they should limit the racing to three hours (not including practice and qualifying). If the first race takes the green flag at 7 p.m., then the checkered flag should wave on the final race by 10 p.m. so fans can return home at a reasonable time.

“I’m pretty hard on that … that’s what we want to do, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Rice said.

Rice said she’ll keep a close eye on how long the races go with the caution laps not counting. The rule may work perfectly or may need some tweaking, but for Rice it was worth trying after fans had told her they wanted more green-flag racing.

That’s what they’ll get this season.

4. Close quarters

Daniel Suarez’s first time on the track with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing was Wednesday and Thursday at a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway.

Two other cars were there, including Suarez’s former team, the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing now driven by Martin Truex Jr.

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Click on the links below to download the brand new NBC SPORTS SCORES app via iTunes and Google Play.

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Short race: Michigan Cup race lasts just over 2 hours

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Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway lasted just over 2 hours, making it the shortest Cup points race to run a full distance since 2017.

Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Cup race, which lasted 2 hours, 9 minutes, 35 seconds. The short race was reduced to 312 miles since Cup teams ran twice there this weekend. Michigan races are typically 400 miles.

Sunday’s race is the shortest Cup race since the rain-shortened June 2018 event at Michigan that went 2 hours, 15 seconds.

The last Cup race that ran a full distance that was shorter than Sunday’s event was the 2017 Watkins Glen race that lasted 2 hours, 7 minutes, 3 seconds.

MORE: What drivers said after Michigan race

MORE: What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

Nine of the 22 Cup races this season have taken less than 3 hours to run, including six races that were shortened this season after the series resumed in May from the COVID-19 pause.

The issue of shorter races has been a topic in the sport for years. The doubleheader weekend in two weeks at Dover will see both those races shortened from 400 miles to 311 miles each.

“The shorter races, seems like it’s been a good thing,” crew chief Rodney Childers said after Harvick swept the weekend at Michigan International Speedway. “Keeps things exciting.  Everybody is racing harder the whole time, shorter stages. Not much for people riding around or waiting till the end, any of that kind of thing.

“I think the doubleheaders so far have been good. I think putting two of them in the same weekend has been something that probably saves a lot of money for the teams, you’re able to put on a good show two days in a row. We’ll just have to see how that plays outgoing forward.”

Here are the nine races that lasted less than 3 hours this season:

2:09:35 — Michigan II (312 miles)

2:25:01 — Pocono I (325 miles)

2:29:23 — Charlotte II (312 miles)

2:34:55 — Michigan I (322 miles)

2:37:07 — Auto Club (400 miles)

2:42:23 — Darlington II (284 miles)

2:50:54 — Pocono II (350 miles)

2:58:11 — Las Vegas (400 miles)

2:59:49 — Kentucky (400 miles)

What’s in the future for Kevin Harvick’s undefeated car?

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The car is referred to as 081 by Rodney Childers’ crew and in the three Cup Series races it has run this year, it’s unbeatable.

It’s the No. 4 Ford that Kevin Harvick is now 3-for-3 with after his win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team first brought the car to the track for the July 5 Brickyard 400.

In the three races the car has raced, including both parts of this weekend’s doubleheader, Harvick has led 250 of 478 laps and earned four stage wins.

On Sunday, Harvick officially started 20th after a field inversion of the top-20 finishers from Saturday. Harvick won the second stage and eventually led the final 41 laps, holding off Denny Hamlin by .093 seconds to keep 081’s winning streak alive.

Surely, they’ll bring it back at some point in the final 14 races of the season?

“I bet we don’t run it anymore, to be honest with you,” Harvick said after Sunday’s race. “I think there’s so many different styles of racetracks that we’re going to as we go forward here. Obviously, we’re going to a road course (Daytona) next week, then we go to a low downforce track two races in a row at Dover, then a superspeedway car (Daytona), then you go into short tracks, Darlington with high downforce cars. I know you won’t run it at Vegas or Charlotte.

“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll run this car anymore.”

When asked about the future of 081, Childers wouldn’t budge.

“That’s kind of up to me to decide. It’s top secret,” Childers said. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Don’t expect the No. 4 team to christen 081 – a number assigned to it in production – with any affectionate nicknames, like the name Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave to a car a few years ago, “Amelia.”

“We don’t really talk about that kind of stuff,” Childers said. “We’ve had some good cars over the years with the 4 team and some of them have won a lot of races. We call it 081 and we keep it going through the system just like any other car. Just have to figure out our car schedule and figure out where we’re going to run it again and keep moving forward with it.”

What drivers said after Sunday Cup race at Michigan

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Here is what drivers had to say after the Sunday Cup race at Michigan:

Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I think when you look at my team we’ve been together for going on seven years now and you look at the confidence everybody has in each other. The details of the race cars and the thought of everything that goes into everything that we do is untouchable. That’s what it takes are details to make these race cars go fast. Our car wasn’t quite as good as it was yesterday. I think it was obviously still really good, but I had a little bit more trouble going through traffic today than I did yesterday just because of the tight into three that I had today. Like I said earlier, I could still get through one and two really good, but I couldn’t make those great low passes like I could yesterday and stay in the throttle. If I carried too much speed in there I would push up into the center of the corner and just have to pedal the thing on exit.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Just needed to maneuver a little bit better and I think that we could be a little better. Overall, our car handled well. Just needed a little more speed there and a little bit more handling to pass. Obviously, I thought we were definitely the fastest car by running him (Kevin Harvick) down there. Once we finally got to second, I knew we had something for him, I just got stalled there and he was tight, I was tight. We were better, that’s for sure. I thought if I could maybe get to his quarter panel, I could shove him higher and make him tighter, but just couldn’t quite do it.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “We don’t do anything easy, that’s for sure. We were awful at the start of the race. I don’t know, we didn’t make a lot of changes from (Saturday). We tried to do different things to try to get better. We definitely were worse. Just have to grind them out, that’s what we do. It’s good to be grinding out top-three finishes, that’s what the Playoffs are all about. We need to get some more points before that starts. We battled back. The car was pretty far off to start the race. We’re all pretty disappointed in that obviously, but really proud of the effort to get the Auto Owners Camry back up front.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 4th: “The long runs went away later in the race and that’s just what we had. We got about all we could get out of the day. I felt like the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was the best car. The 2 (Brad Keselowski) was second-best. The 11 (Denny Hamlin), there at the end showed up and was pretty fast, but the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) and myself were really even. That was about all we had. We come to Michigan not normally looking for top-five days, but this has been a good two days. Hopefully we can keep some momentum rolling here and get ready to go next week and turn right and turn left. Yesterday and today, the car drove great. The best driving car I’ve had here at Michigan.”

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “Overall we learned some things this weekend. Both races we were just a little too far off to start. A top-five finish today was good. We’re starting to build some momentum and when you start clicking off top-five finishes you know wins are just around the corner. Obviously next week is a big unknown for everyone going down to Daytona to run the road course. A lot has gone into that so it should be an interesting race for the fans.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 6th: “Today is how we’re supposed to run. We drove from 32nd to the top 10 and had a great Smithfield Hometown Heroes Ford Mustang. We were able to rally there at the end from 22nd to sixth in 12 laps. It felt like we were going to get to third and just ran out of laps. Really proud of Mike Bugarewicz and everyone on our team. Yesterday was a tough day and a character building day. The team worked their guts out last night and we had a great day with the result of it. We’re back on track with our top five and top-10 capability. Congrats to Kevin Harvick on back-to-back wins here and keeping the heritage trophy in Ford’s backyard.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 7th: “It was tough. The car had our tongue hanging out all day, so it’s good we made improvements from yesterday. We were really struggling yesterday and our team worked super-hard and made some good improvements so we could at least run further up there. We didn’t play a lot of defense all day and had to drive the thing for all it was worth, so just glad we were able to get a top 10 out of it finishing seventh. You can take a car that’s a struggle and something that we’re not satisfied with and struggled with all weekend and make some improvements with, but if we take a car like that and finish seventh with it and move on, that just shows the strength of our team and how we keep getting better. If you can make your bad days a top 10, sometimes that’s all you can hope for.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 8th: “It was a good day. We had to start last after going to a backup car and we were issued a pass-through penalty on lap one for making unapproved adjustments on pit road. Despite the challenges, we stayed on the lead lap in Stage 1, which just shows how fast our Chevy was today. The race played out pretty similar to yesterday with strategy and the call to take fuel-only on our last pit stop. We were digging at the end of the race, moving from outside the top 15 to eighth. I thought we had something for seventh but just ran out of laps. It feels good to work as a team to overcome what we had to, and to finish the race as the first Chevrolet in the field.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 9th: “We struggled to get the Mountain Dew Chevy dialed in today. It was pretty tight, and we just weren’t able to improve the handling. We squeaked by with a top-10 finish. All in all, it was a decent weekend, but we have some work to do.”

MATT McCALL (CREW CHIEF for Kurt Busch) — Finished 10th: “Another top-10 finish to roundout a doubleheader weekend. Our Monster Energy Chevy was a little bit better on the short-run speed today, which helped us on some of those restarts. We’ll continue to work hard still to be better to contend for wins. We need to stay focused in trying to turn these top-10 into top-five finishes.” 

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 11th: “We put up a good fight today. Track position was important, and we fought the balance most of the day. I’m looking forward to the road course and both Dover races.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “Hard fought day for us at Michigan today and this weekend overall really. After this weekend we came out of Michigan with a bit larger of a points gap than we started which is good. Hopefully we can go on to the road course at Daytona and keep building that point buffer. I think we’re really good at road courses so hopefully we can run well there despite it being an unknown. I’m looking forward to it though and the challenge it will bring. I will definitely be doing a lot of iRacing this week to get ready for it.”  

Clint Bowyer – Finished 14th: “We had a pretty good DEKALB Ford today. Leading laps is a lot of fun. We could run wide open out front, but we had to lift behind other cars. We were OK until we got hit and that forced us to make an extra stop and that put us in the back. It was good to get some stage points today. We need to do that again next weekend in Daytona.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 18th: My GEICO-Germain Racing guys did a good job this weekend. We made adjustments from yesterday to today and it definitely improved the handling. At the end there, it took our Camaro ZL1 1LE about three laps to come in and then it started rolling. We ran our fastest lap of the race in the final 10 laps, so I think if we had a few more, we would have finished even better. I’m happy to leave with a top-20 finish though. I’m looking forward to the Daytona Road Course next week.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 21st: “Well, today wasn’t as good as yesterday, obviously. Our Camaro just kind of lacked a little bit in overall speed and overall grip. I couldn’t really find it throughout the race, so the restarts didn’t go our way there, towards the end. I kept getting trapped and everything. I guess we used all of our eggs on the first day. All-in-all, it was a solid day coming out of Michigan. A good points day, a good points swing for us. We’ve still got a lot of work to do to climb up the ladder, but we’re heading in the right direction from the last couple of races. So, progress is showing. On to the Daytona road course.”

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 23rd: “We struggled today. We were tight at the start and dragged a lot, particularly when I would get within a few car lengths of another car. We made adjustments throughout the day, and the last one definitely helped us get more speed at the end, but we came home P23. My crew did a great job of sticking with it to the end and never giving up.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 24th: “We fought hard today at Michigan International Speedway, but our No. 8 Chevrolet Accessories Camaro ZL1 1LE was a challenge during the race. We fired off extremely tight, which made it hard to move around and run the bottom like I needed to be able to do. My crew chief, Randall Burnett, made some good adjustments during the race that helped loosen me up, but we just needed a little bit more today. We’ll definitely look back at this weekend as a team to see what we can learn from it and regroup for next weekend.”

Cole Custer – Finished 25th: “We got the car handling better throughout the race, but at the end all of the sudden it wouldn’t turn. That dropped us back quite a few spots, but I think we learned a lot today. We had to overcome some adversity with starting in the back and then getting the pit road penalty, but we’re growing as a team and we’ll move forward to the Daytona road course next week.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 26th: “It was a good job by Dave (Winston, crew chief) making changes, a good job by the pit crew, a good job by everyone. We got the most out of what we had. We thought our Toyota was going to be better at the start of the race – definitely didn’t expect it to be as loose as it was. But we were able to make it better. I just wish I could have some more straightline speed to race some of those guys ahead of us, but I know we’ll get there. We’ll just keep on digging.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 28th: “It was just an overall difficult weekend for our No. 34 team at Michigan. We didn’t unload how we had hoped in race one and then got collected in a late-race incident that forced us to a backup car for today. My guys fought hard on pit road all weekend to try and get our race cars better, and I felt like we were continuously making improvements, but we just ran out of time at the end of the race.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 36th: “That was not what we wanted or needed today. It was just unfortunate events. Greg (Ives) and the guys made great adjustments from yesterday and got the car pretty good. We battled some snug conditions, but the team made great adjustments on pit road. Obviously not the way we wanted to end the double header weekend. We will learn from this and move on to next week.”

Ryan Blaney —Finished 38th:  “It’s just unfortunate for the whole Penske organization. We had two fast cars battling for the lead and it just stinks that happened. He had a run, like he said, and he didn’t think he had as big of a run as he had and just got loose and, unfortunately, got us both. It’s a shame to end our day like that with the Knauf/Menards Ford Mustang. We were so fast.  We had to battle back from having to pit again and got to 10th for the second stage and then got the lead. I was like, ‘All right, we can finally go back at it,’ and just got together there. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not gonna carry over. Things happen. Mistakes happen. It’s just a shame both of us got taken out.”

BRAD KESELOWSKI — Finished 39th:  “I just lost it. It’s my fault. I feel really bad for my teammate, Ryan Blaney.  He didn’t deserve that. I just came off of turn four and the 4 car was behind me and he gave me a push and I swear I went into the corner like 20 miles an hour faster than I had been all day and got past the 11 and I went to get underneath the 12 and I just slipped. I lost the back a little bit and when I went to collect it he was there and I wiped him out and myself out, so I feel terrible for everyone at Team Penske and especially Ryan Blaney. Gosh, he didn’t deserve that. I should have whoa’d way up. I had been running wide-open on the bottom all day and thought I could do it again, but with that big push I overestimated the grip and ruined our day.”

Michigan Sunday Cup results, point standings

Sunday Cup results
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Kevin Harvick completed the weekend sweep with his victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, his sixth win of the season.

Denny Hamlin placed second in the Sunday Cup results. Martin Truex Jr. placed third and was followed by Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

Click here for race results

Point Standings

With four races left in the regular season, the last three drivers currently inside the top 16 in points are William Byron (+26 points above cutline) and Erik Jones and Jimmie Johnson, who are tied with 511 points.

The first driver outside the top 16 who has not won a race is Tyler Reddick. He’s 10 points behind Johnson and Jones.

Click here for the points standings.