Ryan Preece has added his name to a very short list.
The number of modified champions who have ventured into NASCAR’s premier series and enjoyed even a modicum of success can be expressed in single digits.
Jimmy Spencer won two races in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, a feat later equaled by Steve Park. Mike McLaughlin won six times in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and Jeff Fuller claimed one victory in that series, but neither ascended to full-time Cup rides.
So the odds are long against Preece, the 2013 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion who is running for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the Cup series this year.
Then again, the odds against Preece have always been long, and the 28-year-old from Berlin, Conn., has shown a willingness to gamble for the highest possible stakes—his own future.
It’s an oft-told story. In 2017, Preece took all the money he could scrape together and bought two races in a top-of-the-line Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He finished second in his first outing at New Hampshire. In his second start in JGR equipment, he won at Iowa.
Those performances were the springboard that first earned him additional rides in the Xfinity Series and ultimately propelled him to his current Cup deal with JTG/Daugherty Racing.
Now all Preece has to do is change the narrative established by his modified predecessors.
“The gamble paid off,” Preece said. “I’m not saying it would for everybody. I didn’t know if it would. My phone wasn’t blowing off the hook at first. I want people to know that. It could be a life-changing gamble either way.”
Even though Preece has landed at JTG/Daugherty, he is maintaining a strong connection to his modified roots. On Tuesday night, he won a 35-lap modified feature at New Smyrna Speedway, just down the road from Daytona Beach. And he has sought counsel from Park, who in 2000 took the checkered flag at Watkins Glen, won two poles and posted 13 top 10s in his best Cup season.
Park’s best piece of advice to the rookie?
“There’s a lot of stuff I could say, but I don’t think I could say it right here,” Preece said on Wednesday’s media day to preview the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX). “I would say, ‘Don’t hold back. Don’t just drive the car. Don’t just drive through what it’s doing. Constantly tell them very in detail what the car’s doing, because they’re not going to make it better if you don’t.’
“Coming from modifieds, if it was close, it was like, ‘Hey, guys, it’s good. Don’t worry about it. I’ll wheel it.’ That gets you pretty far, but that’s not going to win you races—not at this level.”
Preece is replacing AJ Allmendinger in the No. 47 Chevrolet this year. Allmendinger’s best performance on an intermediate speedway last year came in the Monster Energy All-Star Race at Charlotte, where NASCAR introduced a higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package for that event only.
The 2019 rules package incorporates the principles that produced close racing at Charlotte. That’s a source of optimism for Preece. So is the recent organizational test at Las Vegas.
“Single-car speed really won’t mean much, but if you have single-car speed, you just need to translate it to the draft,” Preece said. “That was something we had, and now we just need to fine-tune and be meticulous about getting it to go from that single-car to the draft.”