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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Playoff drivers share who they want to win title for

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After being awarded the Xfinity Series regular-season championship, Elliott Sadler reminded everyone who he wanted to win his first NASCAR championship for.

“I want to hand my trophy to my parents,” Sadler said last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. “That’s what I want to do. You don’t realize until you get older how much your parents sacrificed when you were a kid to make sure you were in good equipment, whether it was in go-karts or late models or maybe investing money in your career when you first started Xfinity racing or Busch racing back then.”

With the start of the Xfinity playoffs Saturday at Kentucky Speedway (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), NBC Sports asked the other 11 playoff drivers who they wanted to win a championship for.

Here are the best responses.

Brennan Poole (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Brennan Poole – Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet

“You do it for yourself because it’s what you love to do. I fight for it because I want that. But my parents sacrificed a lot to get me to this point. My dad spent a lot of time with me on the road and mom missed a lot those moments with me because I was traveling so much racing. I lived here (in Charlotte) on my own when I was 17, I lived on a guy’s sofa for a year until I turned 18 and got an apartment. But my parents were still in Texas. They didn’t move here until just last year. There’s five or six years of us apart while I was trying to go after this.

“I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to have an amazing family like I had. I think it would be awesome to stand there and win that championship just for all those moments that they went through to get me there. But also, my parents weren’t a racing family. My dad wanted me to play golf. I’ve been very fortunate I’ve always had the right people come along in my life at the right time through quarter midgets and legends cars and dirt modifieds and late models and ARCA and now Xfinity. To help me get to that next level. To teach me the things I needed to get to the next step. It will be a huge payment to everybody that believed in me to get me to this point.”

Ryan Reed – Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 Ford

“I think your family is always really important to every race car driver. They’ve had a lot of help to get here. No one did it on their own. A lot of times it’s their family. But for me, after being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, obviously my partner Lilly Diabetes, who stuck with me essentially from the beginning. But then also for every person living with Diabetes. I would venture to guess 90 percent of them have been told they can’t do something because of diabetes. Winning a championship would absolutely be dedicated to all of them.”

Justin Allgaier (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Justin Allgaier – JR Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet

“I think my dad. When I won the ARCA championship, my dad was somebody that was hugely instrumental in that. That would be huge to be able to surmount that. We’ve had a lot of loss at JR Motorsports this year. Adam Wright for us was somebody that was a huge part in making sure this four-car team succeeded. Obviously, that’s something we’re thinking about. We’d love to win a championship for him. … I think anytime you have that it makes these emotions of when things go well that much better.”

William Byron – JR Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet

“I think about people that helped me in my in legend cars, my crew chief there, Dennis (Lambert), Rudy (Fugle) last year ( in the Camping World Truck Series) helped me. I saw how those guys hated to see how it unfolded last year. All those people that helped me get to this point. My parents obviously. Liberty (University), everyone. Hopefully everyone can be excited about it and when can go out and win it and be able to show those people all the support they’ve given me, be able to give back to them.”

Matt Tifft – Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota

“Definitely my mom and dad for sticking with me through this whole progression of my career. They’ve stood behind me. My dad’s been to every race since I started racing when I was 12. Obviously they’ve helped me a lot and encouraged me to go after my dreams and do what I love to do with this. At the same I think it’s well known my story and I’d love to be able and go do that to be a champion for all those who have gone through things similar to me with the brain surgery world and the brain tumor world I should say. I’d like to be able and go out and prove myself for that reason.”

Daniel Hemric (Getty Images)

Daniel Hemric – Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet

“The first thing my mind goes to is for the hard-nosed short-track racer that will not ever get an opportunity like this. I’m one of the few that’s been fortunate to be given this seat to sit in and be able to have the opportunity to run for a championship. I think if I could hoist that trophy at Homestead it would be kind of one of those, ‘Hey, it can still be done the old fashioned way’ kind of things.”

Brendan Gaughan – Richard Childress Racing’s No. 62 Chevrolet

“Me … me … me. I’ve had a lot of people get me through this. This would be for everybody, but listen, anybody that says, ‘Oh, it’s going to be…’, no. You want to win championships for your sponsor, for yourself or your owner, yes, all that’s great. I’ve been doing this 20 years. I would love to get another championship, especially at this point in my career. That’s what we do it for and I would love to be able to catch it now.

NASCAR Spotlight: Q&A with Austin Cindric

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Eleven days ago you may not have known who Austin Cindric was.

Then came the eventful last lap of the Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

After starting the final stage in 16th, Cindric was chasing down Kaz Grala in hopes of passing him and earning his first NASCAR win.

If you were watching, you now know Cindric’s name. You also know the 19-year-old Brad Keselowski Racing driver is willing to give the bump-and-run to Grala, an old friend, to get into the Truck Series playoffs.

“If that didn’t mean a playoff spot for me than it wouldn’t have happened,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I’ll be frank about that and I’ll be honest it. It’s just one of those things that was going to have to happen for us to move forward. We needed the win and he wanted one.

“Need surpasses want.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: What was your biggest career achievement before your Truck win?

Cindric: It’s hard to say. I think my win in ARCA last year at Kentucky was big for me because that was my first stock car win at an oval after several tries and being really close. That was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to prove that I’d be able to do it a level and on that kind of stage. But to get it done in the Truck Series is a huge thing. It’s a national series in NASCAR. It’s a huge honor to be able to do it for the team.

NBC Sports: What was Brad Keselowski’s advice on how to handle the situation with Kaz?

Cindric: It was kind of funny talking back and forth because the first thing he told me was the best policy is honesty. I kind of laughed because I may have been too honest in my post-race interview. I think that’s what may have upset a few people, just because it may have not come across the right way about how the finish came off. I’ve got to be honest. It’s one of the qualities, it may be positive, it may be negative for me, but I’m not going to execute a move like that and not own up to it, I think that’s not in my nature and it’s only doing myself a disservice doing it the other way.

NBc Sports: When did you find out Brad Keselowski Racing would be shutting down?

Cindric: The only reason I heard about it before everyone else is because I had to stay the week in Bristol … which was the same week they announced it. Jeremy Thompson, our team’s manager, approached me after the race when we were in tech and told me what Brad was going to do at the shop the next morning and explain it to everybody. Yeah, it was a bit of a surprise for me. Obviously, it was tough not being able to be at the shop for that because I wanted to be with everybody. I wanted to take part in something like that. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to. It definitely means more to be able to bring something back this weekend to kind of get everyone excited for the last eight races.

NBC Sports: What’s your earliest memory related to auto racing?

Cindric: I guess going to the Indy 500 as a kid. When I grew up around racing it was mostly IndyCar racing. My dad (Team Penkse president Tim Cindric) did all of the strategy, managed the IndyCar team till both teams merged in North Carolina. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina that I got much of an introduction to NASCAR and that was at 7 or 8 years old. I was able to watch as many IndyCar races as I could as a kid and travel around in the summer and be able to go to those cool places and meet all the drivers and get their autographs and be a race fan. That’s what I was when I was little. I had all the Hot Wheels, I had all the diecast cars.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Cindric: I have never actually owned my own car. They’ve all actually been Ford vehicles. When I really started racing sports cars, I started with Ford and their factory Mustang program and the same gear box that was in a race car was in their street car. So I got my own Mustang to drive around and get used to the box because it was going to help me on the race track. Now obviously we’re the only truck team that runs Ford, so we get a lot of support from them. Ford’s been good enough to me to be able drive around town. But I’ve actually never owned my own car.

NBC Sports: What’s your favorite phone app to use that’s not social media?

Cindric: Shazam. I’m a huge music guy and Shazam, it’s the worst when you have the radio stations that never show what the (song) is and you just pull out your phone and boom, two seconds. You get the name of the song, screen shot it and go download it. I’m a Shazam guy.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup night race at Bristol, what would you choose as your introduction song?

Cindric: I’d like one of the Star Wars theme songs. Like when the Emperor walks out of the galactic shuttle.

NBC Sports: The Imperial March?

Cindric: Imperial March, there you go.

NBC Sports: If you were Star Wars character, who would you be?

Cindric: I’d be like a mix of Mace Windu and Obi-Wan Kenobi. … You can’t beat Samuel L. Jackson. And he has a purple lightsaber. Which is always cool because nobody else did. And Obi-Wan because he’s always the positive character, he does what’s right and does what’s necessary and he’s pretty level-headed. I think it’s hard not to like Obi-Wan.

NBC Sports: If you could race against any driver past or present, what track would you race at and what kind of car would it be in?

Cindric: I would race Rick Mears in, I’m not sure. I would say in Group C, which was basically the big prototype series in the 80s, a Group C car. And we would be at Mid-Ohio.

NBC Sports: Why Rick Mears?

Cindric: He’s someone a lot of people have respect for and someone I’ve grown up idolizing. I think he’s obviously a damn good race car driver. To be able to be on the race track with him at the same time and to be wheel-to-wheel with someone like that would be pretty neat.

Previous Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

Harrison Rhodes

James Davison

Jeremy Clements

David Starr

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With grandfather on mind, Jeremy Clements experiencing fruits, exhaustion of first Xfinity win

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For Jeremy Clements, one of the best things about his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is the Peach Blossom Diner.

When he was younger, Clements would make trips to the restaurant, located on Hospitality Drive, to hang out with some of his NASCAR predecessors who also called the city home.

Nine-time Cup winner Cotton Owens and 1973 Talladega 500 winner Dick Brooks were among the patrons.

There was also the “Silver Fox.”

Clements is no stranger to three-time Cup champion David Pearson and his family. His son Ricky Pearson served as Clements’ crew chief in the Xfinity Series in 2007 and from 2010-14.

A winner of 105 Cup races, Pearson wasn’t above trying to give Clements advice on how to manhandle a stock car.

“He’d always tell me how to drive and tell me what to do,” Clements tells NBC Sports, giving an example of an exchange.

“You need to just use one foot. One foot brake, one foot gas,” Pearson would say.

“David, there’s no way you can do that anymore, buddy.”

“I’ll get in that dang car and show you.”

But when the No. 51 Chevrolet of Jeremy Clements Racing arrives at Darlington Raceway on Friday, it will pay tribute not to the career of Pearson. It will be an ode to Clements’ grandfather, Crawford Clements.

Source: Jeremy Clements Racing

The car will look like the one driven by A.J. Foyt when he won the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona with Crawford Clements serving as his crew chief.

Jeremy Clements was 12 when his grandfather died from cancer, but his grandfather’s influence ultimately led to his upset win Sunday in the Xfinity Series race at Road America.

“I was really close to him,” Jeremy Clements says. “It was devastating when he passed. He’s the one that got me started. He would take my brother Jason and I to the go-kart track Buck Creek Speedway (in Chesnee, South Carolina) and race with us and do all the work and everything for years. I’ll never forget that. … I always have his name on the cars we race every week because he meant so much to me. He did a lot for a lot of people.

“He was a very smart man and I wish he was here today to see all this.”

NO REST FOR FIRST-TIME WINNERS

Jeremy Clements poses with the winner’s sticker after the  Johnsonville 180 at Road America. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Clements is very tired.

Three days earlier, in his 256th start, the 32-year-old driver became the first Xfinity competitor with no Cup experience on a team with no Cup connections to win a race since 2006.

That causes the phone to ring. A lot.

“I’ve been going after it non-stop,” Clements says. “Haven’t slept the most. Everybody wants to talk to you. It kind of wears you out, but in a good way. I’m not complaining about it.”

Clements lost count of how many interviews he’s given since he took the checkered flag at Road America, one lap after accidentally spinning himself and race leader Matt Tifft in the last corner coming to the white flag.

He was not prepared for the attention one brings by winning in NASCAR.

“Heck no, man,” Clements says. “Not at all. It’s been crazy. I went into Road America thinking that we could run really well there because we had, and I like that place and the road courses were somewhere we could always run good. But I didn’t anticipate to win the race, honestly. It’s just been insane.”

Clements has tried to keep up with all the well wishes on social media, with congratulatory messages from Brad Keselowski, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.

“All those meant a ton,” Clements says. “I think I missed a few.”

The “coolest” acknowledgment he received was one he couldn’t miss. On Tuesday, a goody basket full of cheese, crackers and sausages arrived.

“It wasn’t a low-end basket,” Clements says. “It was a nice one.”

The basket was courtesy of Rick Hendrick.

“First of all, I’ve never even met Mr. Hendrick,” Clements says. “Second of all, for him to even think about me was amazing. To get our address and send something to us was pretty cool. He’s one of the best team owners in the garage.”

Even as the week of celebration unfolds around Clements, the work preparing for the rest of the season does as well.

The car Clements won with, built in 2008 and the oldest of the team’s seven-car fleet by a month, was up on a lift in the shop having its engine removed.

“When I was doing my victory stuff on the front stretch, I wanted to burn that thing down,” Clements says. “But the sad truth of that is that I couldn’t. I was like, ‘heck, we’ve probably got to use this motor next week.’ I had to be easy with it and take care of it. Truth be told, that engine had two races on it before that race.”

Jeremy Clements  practices for the Johnsonville 180 at Road America. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Clements and his team don’t yet know how much their winner’s gross will be. They’ll find out Friday and instantly start spending it at Darlington.

“You need probably 15, 16 grand worth of tires there,” Clements says. “It’s going to be a good payday for sure but it’s not going to be something we can just go out and start buying cars and stuff because everything’s so expensive.

“It’s crazy how much, that’s just life in general I guess. It’s like an axle for our cars are $225 a piece and you need them every week, but that’s just one little thing, you know? It takes a lot of individual parts and all of them cost a lot.”

The team, owned by his father Tony Clements, has already made purchases they hope will benefit them in their unexpected position of having qualified for the Xfinity playoffs, which begin Sept. 23 at Kentucky Speedway.

Even before Road America they had acquired two newer composite body cars from Richard Childress Racing. They’ll first run one next weekend at Richmond.

No matter how things go for Jeremy Clements once the playoffs start, he’s “playing with house money” after Road America.

“I’m not going to get too worked up about it,” Clements says. “We’re going to go give her hell and do the absolute freakin’ best we can. But I don’t want to get too boiled up about it if we don’t do the best and we don’t make it to the next round. I’m not saying we’re not gonna, I’m just saying we’re playing with house money. In my opinion it’s just icing on the cake.”

‘LOOK AT ME. LET’S GO’

When Clements took the white flag at Road America, he started getting chills, goosebumps and knots in his stomach.

First, he had no idea how after spinning with Tifft and briefly stalling out he still had the lead. Also, as he made his final lap around the 4-mile road course, his mind began racing.

“Just honestly started thinking about what do I even do if we win?” Clements says. “What do I say and who do I need to thank?”

When he finally got to victory lane, he had the presence of mind to give a shout out to any big team owners that were paying attention.

“I want to drive for a big team, but it hasn’t been the way it’s gone,” Clements told NBC. “I try to keep doing this, to keep my name out here getting as much experience as I can in case I do get the call. To any big team guys. Look at me. Let’s go.”

For Clements, NASCAR has always been his goal since his days of watching Days of Thunder on a TV in the back of a van on the way to go-kart tracks to get “amped up.”

In the few days since his win, when not talking with the press, Clements has reached out to owners.

“They say ‘we’ve paid attention to you before,’ but at the end of the day, they need money,” Clements says. “There’s hardly anybody getting opportunities these days that didn’t bring some kind of money to get them in there. That’s the bad part about it. It’s been like that for years.”

But Clements isn’t inclined to give up on his dream, especially after the biggest win of his racing career. If his career had come to an end after Sunday, he still wouldn’t be satisfied.

“I don’t think I would be pleased until I got that break and that’s what I’m still working on,” Clements says.

But before he can continue to do that at Darlington in his tribute to his grandfather, he’s going to enjoy the perks of being a first-time winner as long as he can.

“I don’t think I’ve bought a meal yet this week so far,” Clements says. “Hopin’ to continue that streak.”

NASCAR fits Indy 500 veteran James Davison ‘like a glove’

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All roads lead back to Days of Thunder.

Whether you’re Kyle and Kurt Busch in Las Vegas, Nevada, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in North Carolina, the 1990 Tom Cruise film had an immeasurable impact on many of today’s NASCAR drivers.

Not even James Davison, growing up in Melbourne, Australia, could escape its reach.

The movie which proclaimed that “rubbin, son, is racin’,” was the first exposure to NASCAR for the 30-year-old driver.

James Davison during the NASCAR Xfinity Series Mid-Ohio Challenge at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 12, 2017 (Getty Images).

“It was obviously incredible inspiring,” Davison told NBC Sports. “When you think this Cole Trickle character was,an IndyCar driver, came from the Indy ranks over to NASCAR, it’s obviously exactly what I’m doing. … It would be pretty amazing to achieve winning in NASCAR when as a kid it was just a movie. Like a dream that’s never going to happen really in my life. I’d never been to America before and NASCAR’s so huge and the drivers are so famous and all that stuff. Now here I find myself racing NASCAR.”

Davison, who has made three starts in the Indianapolis 500 since 2014, will pilot Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Toyota this weekend when the Xfinity Series travels to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

It will be his third NASCAR start in two years after making his debut last season at Road America in the No. 90 owned by Mario Gosselin.

Unlike Cole Trickle, who got to test the best fictional equipment NASCAR had to offer before getting to race, Davison parachuted into Road America and had a crash course in stock cars with the underfunded team before making his debut.

“I was told straight up we were going to qualify somewhere between 10th and 20th, that’s what the car had,” Davison said. “We were going to be 50 horsepower down. We were going to be lacking compared to all the big, top teams. … These small teams’ budgets are like 20 percent of the big teams. I then had to swallow my pride and do the best I could with what I had.”

On a track he’s won at in Star Mazda and the Pirelli World Challenge, Davison qualified 18th and finished 19th. Three months later, during NASCAR’s race weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he had initial talks with JGR about a potential ride this season.

Now, after finishing fourth at Mid-Ohio two weeks ago, Davison says “NASCAR very much fits me like a glove.”

Davison is a veteran of five IndyCar starts since 2013. One of those was the high-profile substitution of the injured Sebastien Bourdais in last May’s Indy 500.

Though he crashed out of the race on Lap 183, Davison was able to lead two laps. The personal achievement was not lost on Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles, who sent Davison a note about it the next month.

“It hasn’t really sunk in because you’re so caught up in the moment,” Davison said. “To think there’s 10s of millions of people watching and you’re one of 33 in the race and then you’re fortunate enough to find yourself leading it, regardless of how hard you work or how deserving you are and all that stuff, you are privileged.”

But without a major sponsor to back his open-wheel racing aspirations, Davison has “resigned” himself to only driving in the Indy 500 when it comes to IndyCar. Davison now sees stock car racing as the best chance for him to establish himself.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Davison says. “It’s where I want to be.”

Davison got his first taste of what NASCAR could provide him not at Road America last year, but in 2012, in a late-model race in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“That was for sure a culture shock,” Davison said. “I’ve been living in America for 12-and-half years and that was something else. The terminology they use and their accent is very hard to understand on the radio, but a great experience.”

The race came when Davison was living in Charlotte for two months with Nelson Piquet Jr. and “first looking at NASCAR,” but when he had “no profile or sponsorship support” behind him.

“I had no career breaks forthcoming and I literally would drive anything,” Davison said.

Davison would eventually meet the right people. After making two IndyCar starts in 2013, he was the last entry into the 2014 Indy 500, racing for KV Racing Technology.

Now everything that resulted from that race has led to Davison getting his second NASCAR start of the year with the best team in the Xfinity Series. The Australian has spent just over 10 days with JGR over the last month preparing for the races at Mid-Ohio and Road America.

In that time, he’s bonded with his team by exchanging Days of Thunder quotes and getting laughs with his best impression of a southern accent. He’s also had multiple visits to a simulator for a virtual visit to Road America.

“It’s just doing what I need to do to make sure all the prep is done as well as possible and I fit in the car and building some chemistry up with the team,” Davison said.

Confident in his abilities, Davison said he has avoided seeking much advice from other drivers.

“I haven’t leaned on anyone,” Davison said. “I’m very much just (studying) myself, watching onboard videos and chatting with my engineer. I’ve become friendly with some of the other guys, like Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier. Had a good chat with (Sam) Hornish (Jr.). It’s very much every man for them self. … I’ve driven in NASCAR at Road America last year, so I knew what to expect for the most part.”

If he were to visit victory lane on Sunday, there’s little doubt it would be the biggest career achievement for the man who first experienced the thrills of NASCAR through Cole Trickle.

Adding to the occasion: Davison’s No. 20 Toyota will have Trickle’s Mello Yello paint scheme from the climactic Daytona race in Days of Thunder.

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Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight. Preece will start from the pole, his first in the series.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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