Ryan Preece isn’t worried. His teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is confident. The duo expects to be improved during the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season that the future of JTG Daugherty Racing will end up on a more solid foundation.
See, Preece is back in the No. 37 Chevrolet for the team. The problem is, the future of that ride isn’t secure. The team doesn’t have funding right now to run all 36 points paying races. There’s talks that they may sit out races later this summer if the year doesn’t start off the way that they need.
They enter Daytona Speedweeks without a charter too, meaning Preece has only two options to make next Sunday’s Daytona 500. One is to be among the top two speeds among the eight open cars or the other is to race his way into the field during Thursday night’s Duels.
Preece though, isn’t worried.
“I’m not stressed at all,” Preece said during his Daytona 500 media availability. “We’re going to go down, and if everything works out the way I think it’s laid out, we should qualify on speed. So, I feel pretty confident with it.”
The speed should be there in a sense that Stenhouse Jr. qualified his No. 47 Chevrolet on the pole for this very race a year ago. Without any major rules changes between then and now that would affect the speed, he and other drivers expect a very similar Speedweeks next week than to the one of 2020.
So, Preece has every reason to be confident in what he’ll bring down to Daytona. The only issue for Daytona is that non charter scenario.
“I think we’re going to be just fine,” Preece continued. “To be honest with you, it’s not like I haven’t had obstacles in my career. It’s not easy and it’s not like you’re guaranteed in. Working with Trent (Owens) and through some of the things that have been going on throughout the offseason, I feel confident that we should have plenty of speed and we can get in on time, which will make the Duals that much less difficult.
“No matter what plan you come up with when it comes to Daytona, you can be as prepared as possible but you never know what’s going to happen. We’ll see. Hopefully we qualify in on time and everything becomes easier throughout the weekend. If we don’t then it will come down to executing, making sure everything goes right and get ourselves in.”
If he gets in, Preece said that they’re going to be way more aggressive early on this year. He feels like they can’t give away stage points because they may need them later on in the year. Last year, they were hit with a heavy penalty that put them in negative points early on on the season.
Stage points are going to be key this time around.
“I think it’s going to push us to race more for stage points when it comes to the first two stages at Daytona,” Preece said of Daytona. “Usually if you look at years past, we’ve kind of just hung around purposefully to make sure we got to the end. But it seems like all these wrecks have been happening in the last 10 laps. So, you’re just giving away stage points.
“If you look at last year, we were negative-three points after three races due to not going after stage points, wrecking in the final laps at Daytona, a blown motor, not a good weekend at California. We’re going try to get as many points as we can, and if we’re in position to be aggressive, then we will be aggressive. That’s what it comes down to.”
The thing is, what about after Daytona?
Preece, had just two top 10 finishes all of last year and was only 29th in the final standings. He had three top 10’s and was 26th in points the year before. Can they find some early success and sustain it enough to build up the bank account and also help lure new sponsors in hopes of making it a full season?
“We had a few motor failures and a transmission break,” Preece said of last year. “The superspeedways killed us a couple of times. There’s not much you can do when it comes to that, but we can focus forward and try to start the year off on a strong note. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”
His team owner Brad Daugherty said last year though that they were happy with Preece and how he was progressing. Can Preece stay on that good side?
“With Ryan (Preece), he’s still learning,” Daugherty said of his second year driver last Une. “He’s improving tremendously. He comes out of a modified sport where you drive off that big right rear tire and it’s taken him a while to get used to these Cup cars. He’s had success in the Xfinity Series so we know he can be successful even though we know the cars are different.
“We’re excited. With young Ryan and he continues to evolve. He’s getting the educational laps in so to speak, we think he can challenge.”
For Stenhouse, he feels like they’ll be contenders again. He knows how good of a car that he had at Daytona last year and knows that the same ability in it will be back.
“It’s just doing all those little things right and making sure we do our job,” Stenhouse said. “Because being at JTG Daugherty Racing, you have me and Preece and that’s the only people we can count on. You can’t count on anybody else, so it’s nice to have a car capable of doing maybe things other people feel like they can’t do with their car.
“And that’s what you get when you pay attention to all those details that Brian (Pattie) and our team does. I’m excited to get back down there and limit those mistakes. You don’t feel like it’s a big mistake, but one little thing can take you out of contention.”
Stenhouse, was feast or famine in 2020. He had eight DNFs in 36 races. He also had flashes of brilliance too. This year, it’s all about minimizing his mistakes and building off of their notebook from last year.
“On my side, I need to clean up my pit road mistakes, because I feel like I can count on a full hand that I felt like I gave up some really good opportunities to run well inside the top 10 at some of these race tracks from having a pit road penalty,” Stenhouse continued. “We have a little bit bigger notebook than we had last year with the (Chevrolet) Camaro and these chassis, Brian knows what to look for and we need to change going into some of these tracks that we struggled with.”
Stenhouse had a two win season in 2017 and made the playoffs. The bubble will be as tight as ever in 2021, so a win will be the best way for his car to get postseason eligible.
But, the team has also improved year over year and knows that their best case is to remain a two-car tandem.
Stenhouse Jr. replaced Chris Buescher for 2020 with the team while he basically shifted in the No. 47 Chevrolet and Ryan Preece moved over to the No. 37 Chevrolet as a result. Between AJ Allmendinger, Buescher and Preece, they combined to score just seven top five finishes between 2015 and 2019. Through the first 15 races run this season, Stenhouse by himself already has three top fives alone.
The issue was, he didn’t have any in the final 21.
They did go from 14 laps led in 2019 to 80 in 2020. Again, 68 of those came from Stenhouse and 24 of those 68 were in the Daytona 500.
In June of last year, co-owner Brad Daugherty said that he felt like their 2020 pace was ahead of 2019. Can they get 2021 ahead of 2020?
“I think we’re a little ahead of last year,” said Daugherty last summer. “We felt like the last 2 years, we build our own race cars and have some really smart people working really hard. We thought last year, we had race cars that were really good, really, really good. For us, being a midsize smaller team, when you go out and go toe to toe with these big guys, you go in the top 15 you’re having a good day. When you get in the top 10, you’re having a great day.”
Daugherty noted then too that their past struggles have always been on 1.5-mile tracks. These circuits were NASCAR’s bread-and-butter. They’re not so much now even though JTG improved last year on them.
“What we’ve seen, the struggles have been when you go to the 1.5-mile’s and everybody has a lot of redundancy with simulation,” Daugherty continued. “It’s tough for us because we get out engineered a lot of times at the big race tracks.
“This year, we’ve seen our race cars compete and be in the mix on the 1.5-mile’s. We had great race cars at Bristol, felt like we could run in the top five and finish in the top five at Bristol. Even at Talladega. When you go to Talledega, those Hendrick engines and Hendrick horsepower is stout. The car was slick and fast. Had enough downforce for stability and Ricky could really maneuver the car.”
They’re going to need Preece and Stenhouse to be aggressive in 2021 but sometimes aggression leads to carnage. Can they temper the two sides? Their future depends on it.