Whether that value is recognized and appreciated in contract negotiations this summer — both confirmed to NBC Sports they’re free agents after this season — will determine their short-term futures in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Stenhouse, 62 points from the playoff cutoff heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway, is earning results in a manner we haven’t seen from him in the last four years. His 17.3-place average finish is in line with his 17.1 average finish from 2017, the year of his only playoff appearance. And there’s a sense that he’s presently punching above his weight class.
With the 19th-fastest car per average median lap rank and the 15th-fastest pit crew according to median four-tire box time, Stenhouse holds a Production in Equal Equipment Rating exceeding most others in his usual running whereabouts, a range of 16th-20th place. Among eight drivers within the range, his 1.333 PEER ranks second, good enough to overcome poor restarting numbers dragging down his track position. A well-rounded profile elsewhere, present in a spider chart highlighting his team’s habits against those with nearby average running spots, assisted in maintaining his current place in the standings:
Stenhouse and his team managed finishes better than their single-race median speed rankings in each of their first eight starts this season and he is one of 18 drivers with a positive surplus pass differential on 550-horsepower tracks. There’s no guarantee JTG Daugherty will use advanced stats to evaluate its driver’s worth when deciding its plans for 2022, but Stenhouse believes he’s on a trajectory to surpass his team’s internal goals.
“I feel like we’ve actually met a lot of our goals, as far as being consistent, not making mistakes on pit road, things like that, that I felt like held us back last year,” said Stenhouse, who indicated conversations around a contract extension will begin “soon.”
In his second season with JTG Daugherty, the 33-year-old is content with his spot, bought into the team’s competitive progress.
“I believe in everything we’re doing right now, full confidence in everybody that we’re going to continue to build this race team up,” Stenhouse said. “And, you know, I don’t think we’re done this year. Our best races are in front of us.”
While Stenhouse is fighting for a playoff spot, his JTG Daugherty stablemate fights to maintain his job. Surely, it won’t be Preece’s fault if his charter-less team falls shy of making 36 starts. In January, team co-owner Brad Daugherty told Fox Sports that Preece’s car only had funding for 24 races. With an unclear future for the team in 2022, the driver needs a strong statistical showing on his résumé.
So far, Preece has performed relatively well given his team’s speed (22nd in average median lap rank) and pit crew performance (29th in median four-tire box time). He’s most regularly in the 22nd-25th running range:
Against the likes of Ryan Newman, Erik Jones, Daniel Suárez and two drivers from Stewart-Haas Racing among others, Preece fares better than average in PEER, non-preferred groove restart retention rate and crash avoidance. This year’s effort follows a 2020 season in which he ranked 15th in PEER on 750-horsepower tracks and 12th in the final 10 races of the season.
Are these statistical high points enough to warrant a continued stay in the Cup Series, despite a lack of outward success in more traditional metrics? Preece isn’t sure, but he knows a boost to his team-supported stat line would help establish a more conventional argument. His top-15 finish tally (five) isn’t far removed from Stenhouse’s seven, but Preece has eight finishes of 20th or worse.
“It’s tough to say,” Preece said. “We just need to get closer to where we want to be when we unload, and I think that will just help everything.”
Preece’s performance skews towards 750-horsepower tracks again this season, though oddly in part to strong road course showings at Daytona (ninth) and COTA (15th).
“It’s weird. Ricky really shines in the 550 stuff and mile-and-a-half stuff, and I struggle,” Preece said. “I’m not comfortable right now with where the balance is for me to be able to be aggressive like he can be, but then we go to some short tracks and road courses — road course-wise, we have two top 15s, one top 10.
“Road course-wise, we’ve been pretty good and that’s not even my forte. It’s not something I’ve grown up doing. We have ‘the whole thing,’ it’s just not together for us.”
A steady diet of road courses, four more within the regular season, awaits Preece through the summer. By then, he’ll have a better indication of JTG Daugherty’s initial steps into the Next Gen era and whether that future includes him. So, too, will Stenhouse.
For both Stenhouse and Preece, success in a team game would go a long way in improving the optics of their individual performances. Stenhouse understands how he’s viewed within the free-agent market — either by JTG Daugherty or other teams — may change based on the eye of the beholder.
“We do this collectively,” Stenhouse admitted. “But obviously, I’m a big part of it. My hands are on the steering wheel.”