Cathy Rice

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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.

5. NBC SPORTS SCORES app 

The NBC SPORTS SCORES app is a new way to engage, read and watch all of the content across our platforms.

Available on iOS and Android, the NBC SPORTS SCORES app has up-to-date scores, standings, schedules, podcasts, access to NBC Sports radio content, videos and more.

You can also get all of the latest NASCAR news on the app from NASCAR Talk. All of the NBC SportsTalk sites are available on it.

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

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Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.nbcsports.news&hl=en_US

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Friday 5: As the youth movement progresses, should there be minimum age limits?

Photo: Jake Garcia Racing
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By his father’s account, 13-year-old Jake Garcia fared well while becoming the youngest driver to compete in a Late Model race at historic Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville last weekend.

Garcia finished 13th in a 19-car field in a race won by Michael House and placed ahead of former Cup driver Sterling Marlin, who was 15th. The performance came about two months after Garcia’s Late Model debut — before he had turned 13.

Garcia’s first Late Model race, though, was actually late when compared to Timmy Tyrrell, or Mini Tyrrell as he’s know around the track. Tyrrell made his first Late Model start when he was 9 years old in 2014 at Shenandoah (Virginia) Speedway. Tyrrell has won the past two Late Model track championships there.

As NASCAR celebrates a youth movement in Cup — more than 20 percent of the drivers in Monday’s race at Martinsville Speedway were age 24 or younger — children are moving up to the Late Model ranks at an earlier age.

There remain some barriers. The minimum age for a NASCAR license is 14 years old, so no one under that age can race in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at a NASCAR-sanctioned track. Tracks without such sanctioning can decide if to allow youngsters to race and some do.

That also leads to questions of if it is right to put a child in a Late Model car before they are a teenager or just as they reach that age. There are those who raise concerns since auto racing can be dangerous even with all the safety enhancements.

Timmy Tyrrell, father of Mini Tyrrell, said he’s heard the “nasty comments” about putting his son in a Late Model at such an early age and the accusations of him being “reckless” with such a decision but says that is not the case. 

“As a father, first and foremost, I want to wrap my kid in bubble wrap whatever he does,’’ Timmy Tyrrell told NBC Sports. “Nobody wants to see their child hurt. I go above and beyond, making sure his seats are perfect, his helmet, his HANS, everything.’’

Tyrrell said the decision to move his son to Late Model wasn’t done by just him but based on evaluation of others in racing. That’s the same approach Stevie Garcia used before allowing his son, Jake, to run Late Models. Jake Garcia is in a driver development program set up by Willie Allen, the 2007 Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s Truck Series. Jake Garcia tested four times at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville — a .596-mile venue that once hosted Cup races — to learn the car and track and showing he could handle racing there.

Allen said they had cameras on the car and some data acquisition devices to help Garcia study those tests and understand what he needed to do to race there.

Garcia impressed Allen with how he performed.

“He’s super calm and composed for his age,’’ Allen told NBC Sports. “I see a lot of other drivers that worry about the wrong stuff at the race track all the time. He’s just focused on how to make himself better and attacking the track and that’s what it is all about.’’

Garcia or anyone else younger than 14 cannot run in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at South Boston (Virginia) Speedway because it is a NASCAR-sanctioned track, but General Manger Cathy Rice wonders if there will be a day when the minimum age requirement is lowered.

“Kids mature so much now, so early,’’ Rice told NBC Sports. “I’ve been in this sport, this is 30 years this year that I’ve been here, I’ve seen the trend of the maturity in the kids. Maybe NASCAR will look at 12 or 13, I don’t know, the insurance and everything you have to deal with, there’s a lot to it.’’

Former Cup champion Kyle Busch, who started in Late Models at age 15 before he was caught for being too young, says there can be cases for younger drivers to race in Late Models.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it’s an experience thing,’’ he said. “I look at go-karts, how did that particular individual do in go-karts and Bandoleros or Legend cars – what has his history been in vehicles? Has he won races? Has he been good? Has it been worth him moving up each and every time that he gets to a new vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s smart to just start at 10 or start at 13 in a Late Model, that absolutely should not be possible.’’

Busch admits the move to Late Models was significant when he made it.

“I was scared to death of the thing,,’’ he said. “With how much faster it was than a Legends car, how much cornering speed it had more than a Legends car and what anything I had ever been in and what I had been used and accustomed to as far as what the grip level was and the G-forces and things that it gives you.

“It was just a big deal at 16 years old for me. I think that there’s kids that can handle it, obviously. I don’t think that it’s all that important to be as young as some of these cats are getting in Late Models and stuff at 10 or 13 years old, whatever it is, because I look at myself not being 15 doing that, and I look at William Byron not being 15 or 16 and doing that. He got a late start like I did, so you can still have a late start and still be good and be able to make it to the big time.’’

Reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. admits that “I’m sure there are some kids that are ready for it and obviously we’ve seen kids at 13, 14 or 15 be successful at short track racing, Late Models or whatever, you name it.

“I would say that there is nobody that should say you can’t do it. I guess the hard part is what happens when somebody is thrown in there that really can’t do it or he thinks he can or parents think you can.

“For me at 13, I would say I probably could have driven a full-size car, obviously it was illegal and I wasn’t allowed to in New Jersey, I had to be 18. I lost quite a few years in racing because of that, but I think I was mature enough and knew enough about racing so I guess it’s more about the individual than it is a generalization. I can’t imagine what I could have learned from the time I was 14 until I was 18 – you’re talking about four years of racing, that’s a lot of races, a lot to learn and a lot of divisions to get up through as well.’’

2. Kyle Busch Double

Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish Monday at Martinsville Speedway marked his 43rd career second-place finish. He also has 43 career Cup victories.

Busch ranks 12th in the modern era (since 1972) for most first- and second-place finishes in Cup.

Here’s the top 12 in first- and second-place finishes since 1972:

1. Jeff Gordon … 168

2. Dale Earnhardt … 146

3. Darrell Waltrip … 142

4. Jimmie Johnson … 129

5. Richard Petty … 126

6. Cale Yarborough … 112

7. Bobby Allison … 109

8. Mark Marin … 101

9. Rusty Wallace … 97

10. Tony Stewart … 93

11. Kevin Harvick … 90

12. Kyle Busch … 86

3. Leader of the pack

Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in Cup this season at 433, but he also ranks third in the Xfinity Series in laps led at 141.

Combined, he’s led 574 of the 2,667 laps run in both series — 21.5 percent — even though he’s not run in every Xfinity race.

4. No fooling

What do Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson have in common?

They all won a Cup race in the modern era (since 1972) on April 1, according to NASCAR stats.

Dale Earnhardt’s first career Cup win came at Bristol on April 1, 1979. He also won at Darlington on April 1 (1990).

Newman (2012) and Johnson (2007) won at Martinsville on April 1. Jarrett won on the date in 2001 at Texas. Waltrip won on that date in 1984 at Bristol. Pearson won on that date in 1973 at Atlanta.

5. Last break of the year

While there are two more off weekends this season for Cup (June 17 and Aug. 26), those off weekends will include Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

This is the final weekend without any type of NASCAR racing through the end of the season — Nov. 18 in Miami.

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Appeal panel upholds penalty to Ben Rhodes’ Truck team

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The National Motorsports Appeals Panel affirmed the penalty issued to Ben Rhodes‘ Camping World Truck Series team from Daytona.

The team stated it will appeal Wednesday’s decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer. The officer’s decision will be final.

NASCAR penalized the team for post-race body inspection heights outside allowable tolerances. NASCAR suspended crew chief Eddie Troconis one race and fined him $5,000. NASCAR also docked Rhodes 10 points and the team 10 owner points.

The appeal panel ruled Wednesday that the team violated the rules and upheld the penalties.

Dixon Johnston, Bill Mullis and Cathy Rice served on the panel.

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