Pressure. That’s what Ryan Preece had to be feeling before he strapped into his No. 37 Chevrolet to qualify for the season opening Daytona 500 last month. But, before we get there, lets rewind to why he was feeling pressure to begin with.
Preece’s back was already against the wall before the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season even began. See, the funding was short on his No. 37 Chevrolet and being for a team that needs sponsorship money, his season outlook wasn’t very strong. On top of that, they had lost their charter, meaning a guaranteed spot into all 36 races also wasn’t certain either.
Charters make it easier to sell ad space on a race car. Owners can get ahold of boardrooms to dangle a carrot in front of them that this car will have a guaranteed spot into every race all season long. Unfortunately, without that guarantee and over 10 races left to sell, it was going to be hard for Preece’s car to remain on track for the duration of the season.
His future in NASCAR’s premiere series very much remained in doubt. With the influx of younger drivers coming into this sport and most of the top rides having drivers already in them or waiting in line for them, where would Preece land if this didn’t work out?
While he would at the very least get to show up to Daytona in February, his spot into the Daytona 500 wasn’t a lock though. It made February more tense than it normally was. Preece, never flinched though. He was confident going into it. That confidence paid off.
That’s why the pressure was on when he was about ready to qualify.
Preece responded. He locked his way into the annual season opening race via being one of the top two speeds in qualifying among the open cars. His work wasn’t done yet though. He knew that he needed points, so instead of just riding around in the Duel, he wanted a top 10 result. He’d finish fifth and net him six bonus points for the season.
In the ‘500, he scored big stage points in Stage 1 via a second place finish. That was already 15 bonus points to his total and we hadn’t even reached the checkered flag yet. When we did, Preece crossed the finish line in sixth.
What an impressive start to his season. A week later, on the same track, this time the road course, Preece came home ninth. After three more races run, Preece is still having success. He sits 14th in the playoff standings and 13 points above the cutline. Through five races, he has three top 15 results. But, if you go back to the Bristol playoff race last year, he has six of them in his last 13 starts. By comparison, he only had six in his first 64 starts with the team.
“I feel like it’s important to get off to a good start like that,” Preece said on Wednesday. “We had two really solid runs back-to-back with the Daytona road course and superspeedway. We capitalized on getting some stage points which I knew was going to be extremely important. We had a pretty good run at Las Vegas which I felt like could have been a top 10.”
Preece notes that last week wasn’t ideal but they’re already looking forward to Atlanta for a rebound in performance.
“Right now, if we’re just consistent and stay out of wrecks and do our job and execute, I think we can really shock some people this year,” Preece continued. “We’re excited about it and I’m definitely pumped about how we started this season.”
This is all starting to come around for the Connecticut native and while it’s going to be tough to stay in the top 16 of the playoff standings, he’s showing that he’s vastly improved than what they’ve been. Is it enough to run a full season?
He said that he doesn’t focus on that side of things as he will rely on the team to secure those sponsorship deals. His job is to just show up and be the best prepared race car driver that he can and make sure the car finishes as high up as it can. If he does that, then the rest will work itself out he feels.
Also, is the fact that five different drivers have already won a race this season worrisome for him? I mean, the more new winners, the less wildcard spots available. That could hurt Preece’s playoff hopes.
But, they thought they’d have to win a race anyways, so does the randomness of the winners so far this year actually give them confidence that they can join? He sounds confident as one could be.
The big key now is next week on Bristol dirt. We may have over 40 cars there which means Preece is going to have to qualify his way in again just like he did in Daytona. With being so high in the points right now, missing a race though and scoring none, well that could be the dagger in a potential surprise playoff berth.
“Pressure doesn’t bother me,” Preece said of that possibility of having to qualify his way in next weekend. “It’s part of the deal. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to race my way in. I’ve been to races and there’s been 60+ cars there and I’ve done it.”
Preece notes that he doesn’t have a lot of dirt background, but said that his sponsor does with big block modifieds and his teammate does too. He feels like he can lean on both and that plus his preparation should put him in a good position to make next weeks field.