A seventh-place finish in Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum marked an important milestone in the career of Ryan Preece, one that has nothing to do with numbers or statistics.
It won’t add another top-10 to his resumé in the NASCAR Cup Series, and the laps led won’t aid in raising his career total, but the performance by Stewart-Haas Racing’s newest driver, without a doubt made a significant impact.
Although Sunday marked his debut for Stewart-Haas Racing, the Berlin, Connecticut-native isn’t a rookie by any stretch of the imagination, having competed full-time from 2019 to 2021 with JTG Daugherty Racing.
During that three-year stint, Preece’s results were, well… underwhelming – scoring three points finishes outside the top-25 and only nine finishes inside the top-10, four of which came on tracks other than Daytona or Talladega.
However, after he was ejected from his seat, things took an unorthodox turn.
In a move that is somewhat unseen in the NASCAR world, Preece was named the reserve driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. And even though it didn’t land him a full-time opportunity, he was placed in select NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, and Truck Series events throughout the year, while continuing to work alongside SHR.
Fast-forward to more than a year later, and Preece has been given the best opportunity of his NASCAR career to date, a full-time seat in the NASCAR Cup Series for a championship-winning organization.
Sunday’s Busch Light Clash, although an exhibition, served as a rebirth to the idea that Preece’s hopes of becoming a NASCAR Cup Series winner, aren’t terribly far-fetched.
Leading a race-high 43 laps, Preece was almost able to produce double his career laps led total in Sunday’s race alone, and more shocking, led more laps in his first outing with Stewart-Haas Racing, than the No. 41 had led in the last three years, combined.
However, as the event whittled laps down – despite the threat of a copious amount of cautions – Preece’s potentially fairytale debut with the No. 41 and Stewart-Haas Racing, turned sour, due to an issue with the fuel pump.
“The fuel pump. The primary fuel pump went bad. I don’t know. I don’t think we were close on fuel,” Preece said. “At first, I thought it was ignition because usually when it’s fuel it just keeps cutting, so I shut off my alternator and all of my electrical stuff and it seemed to help a little bit.”
“It did it again and I lost four spots, so I just flipped the switch and a miracle happened,” Preece continued. “Ultimately, this car was so badass. It was so fast. We drove from 16th outside, inside, everything it took. I’m proud of the speed. I’m happy for the opportunity, but it sucks giving them away.”
The 32-year-old says that the issues began to persist as soon as Martin Truex, Jr., the eventual winner of the event, started battling for the lead.
“As soon as Truex caught me. I don’t know if it was with 30 to go, but five laps before he caught me, it was the fuel pump going bad,” Preece said. “I mean, what are you going to do? You’re a sitting duck. This is a motor racetrack. It’s two drag strips and when you lose all the power, you’re just a sitting duck.”
While in every single event, there are always what-ifs, it may be worth a ponder to consider what Preece, who was easily the best car on restarts, could have done should his fuel pump have co-operated for another 30 laps – or if we didn’t run so many pace laps.
“That just comes from, first off, my grassroots experience, just working hard and just having a fast race car,” Preece said. “Chad [Johnston] and I, we’re a new team, but we’ve already got a year-and-a-half experience together, and knowing lingo. If it’s off, I’ll let him know it, but if it’s that close, he’ll go with his gut.”
However, something that Preece isn’t lacking heading into the regular season is confidence, as the multi-time winner in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour is aiming to visit victory lane in the Daytona 500, and multiple more times in 2023, en-route to a Playoff berth.
“I’m hoping that we can use this as a good start, go to the [Daytona] 500 and win that one, and get ourselves in the Playoffs, and then try to win some more.”
So, whether you want to call it a career rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes, or even just a second chance, it doesn’t make a difference to Preece, who has his head down, focused on achieving his lifelong goal of winning in the NASCAR Cup Series.
…and damn it, 2023 could be the year that it happens.