Ryan Preece genuinely optimistic heading to Martinsville

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 16: Ryan Preece, driver of the #8 Velveeta Shells and Cheese Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway on March 16, 2019 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Even JTG Daugherty Racing’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate, Ryan Preece, can appreciate the irony. For a young talented driver renowned for his short track background and expertise, his best showing so far this year is a top-10 in the Daytona 500 on the sport’s most famous superspeedway.

Preece, 28, is genuinely optimistic, however, to feature those skills that helped him rise in the stock car ranks when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races Sunday in the STP 500 (at 2 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Martinsville Speedway half-miler.

This is Preece’s wheelhouse, as they say.

He already owns a Martinsville grandfather clock trophy from a win there in 2008 – the first of 22 victories in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour – a series the Connecticut native won the championship in (2013).

“It’s what most of us that come through the ranks grow up doing,” Preece said of short track racing. “Heavy braking, getting the car turned, being able to drive off the corner, pick the throttle up as quick as possible. It’s something that I’m used to doing.”

“These mile-and-a-halves, that’s just a different package where you’re on the throttle so much, it’s kind of outside the nature of what I’m used to doing. Kind of going to a place like Martinsville, and I would say even the next few races, it’s going to be very familiar to what my background is.

“It makes me very optimistic. Obviously if you look back at JTG’s runs with AJ [Allmendinger] and even Chris [Buescher] last year, they ran really well. It makes me very excited to go there this weekend.”

Allmendinger, who previously drove the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet Camaro that Preece now drives, had five top-10 finishes in 10 Martinsville races with the team between 2014-2018, including a best showing of runner-up in the spring of 2016.

Six of Preece’s 17 career top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series have come on tracks one-mile or shorter, including wins at Iowa Speedway (2017) and Bristol Motor Speedway (2018).

Even with his particular background and place atop the current Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, he insisted this week he is at best cautiously optimistic about his Martinsville Monster Energy Series debut. It’s a careful balance of managing expectations and carrying confidence.

“Man, the expectations?” he said. “It’s hard to say without being there or running there with the team. I mean, my expectations when I go to a short track are to be a contender. Really at this point, it’s to have a really smooth weekend, run top-10 most of the day. If we can get a top-five, that would be fantastic.

“Definitely short tracks like Martinsville, Bristol, New Hampshire, those are kind of in my wheelhouse. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. When it comes to the restarts and all those moments of being aggressive, it’s something that I enjoy doing.

“As far as what I expect, I expect that we should show really well and at least be running top-10 and hopefully get a top-five by the end of the weekend.”

There should certainly be a good vibe at Martinsville for Preece. His success there initially put him on the map for NASCAR teams searching for young, untapped talent.

He acknowledged, however, his short track debut in NASCAR’s big leagues will be a definitive new test. The hard-nosed, bumper-on-you style that has long characterized this form of exciting full-contact racing will be a brand new arc on Preece’s learning curve. But, he said this week, he feels absolutely ready for it.

“I’ve never been anybody who really wants to put a bumper to someone,” Preece said. “I always try to find a way around them without doing that.

“At the end of the day, I think we all just look for respect. You’re going to race somebody the way they race you. I’m going to fully intend on going into the weekend just like I would a Modified [race], that’s finding a way around without using them up.

“At the end of the day, as long as we’re respectful to others, I believe you get respect back. That’s kind of how I’m going to approach it. I don’t fully intend on going there and smashing people.”

The style and philosophy has certainly worked for Preece, who leads the Sunoco Rookie standings for fourth time in the season’s opening five weeks. He’s ranked 25th overall, tops among the four-driver 2019 rookie class with one top-10 (his Daytona 500 debut). He was involved in wrecks at both Atlanta and Phoenix but responded last week with a solid 23rd-place effort at Fontana, Calif.

In six years, Preece has made 67 starts in either the Xfinity or Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but had the chance previously to run only a single full season – the 2016 Xfinity Series schedule for team JD Motorsports.

So the encouraging start to 2019 says a lot about Preece’s natural ability, but also about his huge drive to make good on this opportunity.

“It’s nice,” Preece said of leading the rookie standings. “It’s showing that we’re right there. But Daniel [Hemric], he’s shown a lot of speed, especially during the West Coast Swing. That’s something we addressed in the meetings yesterday.

“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to make the Playoffs. We’re kind of in a hole right now because of Atlanta and because of Phoenix. It’s really put us behind.

“We just really need to turn it around and get to where the 37 is running and hopefully sneak in some top-10s and be up front. It’s definitely not from a lack of effort. Hopefully we can turn things around and really fight these guys.”

Greg Engle