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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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New Cup driver, spotter combinations set for 2019

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A number of Cup drivers will have new spotters this season, including former champion Brad Keselowski.

Coleman Pressley will be Keselowski’s spotter this season, Team Penske confirmed.

Pressley replaces Joey Meier, who had been Keselowski’s spotter since 2006. Meier announced in November that he would no longer be Keselowski’s spotter.

Meier will spot for Paul Menard this season, a team official confirmed to NBC Sports.

Pressley, the son of former NASCAR Cup driver Robert Pressley, had been the spotter for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing from 2015-18.

With rookie Ryan Preece taking over the No. 47 car for Allmendinger this season, Preece will have Stevie Reeves as his spotter, a spokesperson with JTG Daugherty confirmed to NBC Sports. Reeves had previously been the spotter for Menard at the Wood Brothers.

Former champion Kurt Busch also will have a new spotter this year. He’s moving from Stewart-Haas Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing. Tyler Green, who had been the spotter for Jamie McMurray, will remain with the team and work with Busch this season.

Michael McDowell also will have a new spotter this year. He’ll work with Frank Deiny Jr. Rookie Matt Tifft will have Chris Monez as his spotter. Monez worked with multiple drivers in the Xfinity Series last year.

Matt DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing this season and will be paired with Doug Campbell, who was the team’s spotter last season.

Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

Joey Meier’s tenure as Brad Keselowski’s spotter ends

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Joey Meier announced on Twitter Monday that his time as spotter on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford has come to an end after Sunday’s season finale.

Meier has spotted for Keselowski since 2006.

Joey Meier

“Ive (sic) been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag,” Meier said in the Twitter post. “I will miss spotting but there will be more Chapters in my life as I continue to be a pilot.”

After he won at Talladega in 2016, Keselowski called Meier an “all-star” for his work as a spotter.

“His communication, his way of kind of verbalizing what he sees, is the key for me to be able to make the right moves on the racetrack,” Keselowski said. “It’s a good 1‑2 punch … He’s been part of three of the four Talladega wins, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”

Keselowski would win at Talladega again in 2017.

Keselowski won three times in 2018 and finished the season eighth in the standings.

High above crowd, spotters play key role in who wins and who doesn’t at restrictor-plate tracks

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STATESVILLE, N.C. – How the word popped up, spotter Joey Meier isn’t sure. Somewhere within his brain, as Meier described the madness around Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford at Talladega Superspeedway in an auctioneer’s call, the word emerged.

Energy.

Meier used the word midway through the May Sprint Cup race to alert Keselowski to a surging line of cars behind him. Keselowski moved to block the lane. Meier kept using the word. Team members began counting. The total reached triple digits.

Meier said energy 11 times in the race’s final two minutes. In sync, Keselowski’s car drifted to block whatever line charged. During the final lap, a 14-second snippet featured this Meier soundtrack:

Energy behind you. Up top. 

Energy up top. Energy up top.

Behind the 18. 24 bottom lane one back. 18 is clear. Two-wide behind him. 18 is clear. One back behind him, two-wide. No energy up top. 

Meier’s fast-paced traffic report helped Keselowski win the most recent restrictor-plate race.

As the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night’s race on NBC, the role of spotters again is magnified. Originally employed as a safety feature, spotters have become a strategic element, studying race tape, analyzing pit road and surveying the competition, to give their driver and crew chief insights from above the stands.

It’s little coincidence that eight of the last 10 restrictor-plate races have been won by four drivers. All four — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Keselowski — have been with their current spotter since at least 2013.

“My spotter is definitely an all-star,’’ Keselowski said. “He’s been part of three of the four Talladega wins (Keselowski has had), and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.’’

BUILDING TRUST

Meier first started spotting for Keselowski in 2006, and T.J. Majors has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s spotter since 2007. That familiarity is important to a driver.

“You get to working with the same guy for a long time and you sort of get to where you speak the same language and he knows what you want and don’t want,’’ said Earnhardt, who won last July’s Daytona race, leading 96 of 161 laps. “As a driver, it just gives you confidence having somebody that you trust and believe in and you know is going to give you good information. You can drive the car with more confidence.’’

It often takes time to get to that point. Eddie D’Hondt was Jeff Gordon’s spotter from 2012-15. He guided Gordon to a record fifth Brickyard 400 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Gordon’s 93rd and final triumph last fall at Martinsville Speedway during that time. This season, D’Hondt is rookie Chase Elliott’s spotter, a role D’Hondt also performed when Elliott was in the Xfinity Series.

Still, there have been challenges meshing, especially in restrictor-plate races where so much happens at once.

D’Hondt admits it took about 10 restrictor-plate races to “click” with Gordon and that didn’t come until they watched tape together. D’Hondt said that he and Elliott “really didn’t click at all” during the qualifying race in February at Daytona. They discussed what could be better afterward.

Two days later, Elliott won the Xfinity race after he jumped to the top lane to block a line of cars off Turn 2 and held off Joey Logano at the finish line. Elliott called that experience a big “trust-building day” with D’Hondt.

It’s not easy for a driver to hear a different voice in his ear. Regan Smith joined Tommy Baldwin Racing a month before the Daytona 500. He had never worked with spotter Doug Campbell until Daytona. They watched tape ahead of time so Smith could hear Campbell call certain situations.

“You know pretty fast how aggressive you can be with a spotter and how aggressive they’re going to be with you, so by the time we got done with the (qualifying race), I knew kind of where his aggressive points were and where they weren’t,’’ Smith said. “We sat down after the (qualifying race) and said, ‘Hey … this could be a little different, this was really good. You almost know as a driver if it is going to work with a spotter pretty quick.’’

PAINT A PICTURE

There are numerous challenges and many things drivers want from their eye in the sky. It’s not so easy.

“He’s got to paint a picture in my mind what is going on back there,’’ said 2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano of spotter Tab Boyd. “You got to collect all the data before you make a decision. If you’re not getting all the data, you’re going to make poor decisions.

“I think about that when I’m up there (on the spotters’ stand) watching races. I act like I’m spotting a car sometimes. Most of the times … it’s ‘Oh my God, look out!’ That’s what it would it be if I spotted. That’s why I don’t spot. They’re good at it.’’

Billy O’Dea, now Paul Menard‘s spotter, was Kevin Harvick’s spotter for years before Harvick left Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. One of O’Dea’s proudest moments came when Harvick nipped Jamie McMurray to win at Talladega in April 2010.

During practice that weekend, O’Dea watched Gordon make a late move along the frontstretch to beat Jeff Burton to the finish line. It showed O’Dea where the winning move needed to be made and he told Harvick that.

On the final lap of that race, Harvick was second, pushing McMurray. In turn 4, O’Dea radioed Harvick:

“You know what you’ve got to do.’’

With the start/finish line beyond the tri-oval at Talladega, there was still a long way to go. Harvick started to make his move off Turn 4. O’Dea stopped him.

“Not yet. Just keep coming. You’ll get him.’’

As Harvick went through the tri-oval, O’Dea was like a jockey telling his horse what was needed.

Stay on him … Go!

Harvick cut to the left, got inside McMurray and won by 11-thousandths of a second.

After screaming on the radio, Harvick said: “That played out to the T.’’

TROPHIES AND TROUBLE

Trophies adorn Meier’s office at the hanger for Brad Keselowski’s plane. Meier, a pilot, can look around and see all the success he’s had with Keselowski.

Still, Meier’s mind flashes back to a time he made a mistake and the consequences.

“I can instantly remember wrecking Robert Richardson at Talladega,’’ Meier said of an Xfinity incident years ago. “It’s one of those things that we carry with us. (Spotters) are important and our mistakes are magnified at these restrictor-plate races.’’

As he thinks about the incident, he sees Richardson on the inside of another car in Turn 4.

“I was being real aggressive,’’ Meier said. “We were coming around the corner and we were on the bottom and we had momentum. I figured the momentum was going to clear us and we didn’t and we stalled out. By the time I said ‘clear high’ we had stalled and he came up to get in that lane and we just wiped out five or six cars.’’

Afterward, Meier went to the garage and apologized to Richardson and the crew chief.

“You know for that split-second, even though the driver trusted you, that you broke his trust,’’ Meier said. “What it taught me, after that incident … I’ll tell Brad this all the time, I won’t tell you where you can go more than I will tell you can’t go. If I’m saying outside and you think it’s clear, go out there, but I won’t tell you clear unless I know it’s clear. That’s what I learned.’’

Sometimes, the difference between winning or a good day and failing to finish can be one call from a spotter, especially when cars run inches apart at Daytona and Talladega.

For such lessons, though, there can be rewards. D’Hondt thinks back to when Keselowski had to win at Talladega during the 2014 Chase to advance and did so.

“I went to Joey (Meier) after the race and you would have thought someone had handed him a million dollars because he made the difference,’’ D’Hondt said. “I understand that. It’s very rewarding.’’

It can be if one can handle all the stress.