Ryan Preece admits he’s had a roller coaster year in his first full season on the Cup circuit.
He began his tenure in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet strong with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500. That was a significant accomplishment, as prior to this season Preece had just five previous starts in Cup, all coming in 2015.
But in the four races since this year’s season opener at Daytona, the Connecticut native has been on a pendulum of sorts, finishing 35th at Atlanta (crash), 25th at Las Vegas, 34th at Phoenix (crash) and 23rd this past Sunday at Fontana.
“It’s been really up and down right now,” Preece said during media teleconference Wednesday. “We started off really strong at Daytona, accomplishing our goal of finishing the race. That got us to where we were. Then Atlanta, we were running really well, just didn’t really have anything to show for it.
“We went to Phoenix, Vegas and California. The West Coast swing to us, the 47, wasn’t really what we wanted.”
But the 28-year-old Preece has high expectations and hopes as the Cup circuit heads back East, starting with Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“I feel like we’re on the right track for what we have to, for what I need,” Preece said. “Obviously (teammate Chris Buescher) showed a lot of speed (on the West Coast swing). It shows our cars are fast enough to be where we’re running.
“It’s early, it’s only five races in. The goal is to really just keep up and keep making gains and don’t fall behind..”
Admittedly, Preece has fallen behind due to the up-and-down results he’s posted. He enters Martinsville 25th in the Cup standings, 176 points behind series leader Kyle Busch.
But he also has raced at the .526-mile paper clip shaped track in south-central Virginia several times, including winning there in the Whelen Modified Tour in 2008 (below).
“Just approach it like any short track that I’ve ever been to: be able to attack the corner (and) get it turned as quickly as possible.
“I feel good about our chances considering JTG with Martinsville, probably one of their best racetracks they go to. Definitely looking forward to going.
Preece believes Sunday could be a breakout race for him. He cut his teeth racing on short tracks in the Northeast, much like friend and reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano. As a result, racing at Martinsville will kind of be going back to his racing roots.
“My expectations when I go to a short track are to be a contender,” Preece said. “Really at this point it’s to have a really smooth weekend, run top 10 most of the day. If we can get a top five, that would be fantastic.
“Definitely short tracks like Martinsville, Bristol, New Hampshire, those are kind of in my wheelhouse. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. When it comes to the restarts and all those moments of being aggressive, it’s something that I enjoy doing.”
START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.
PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.
DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.
STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.
TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.
LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.
LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.
“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”
DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing. But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).
“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it. It would be too much.
“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”
As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”
DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.
“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said. “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.
“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”
But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.
“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast. It’s an insanely fast short track. You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.
“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”
DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.
After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.
“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.
“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”
There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.
These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.
Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.
“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.
“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.
“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.
“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”
While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.
“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.
“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”
Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.
“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”
Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.
“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.
“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.
“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”
Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.
“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.
“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.
“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.
“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”
Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.
Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.
He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.
He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.
But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.
“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”
He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.
“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.
“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”