CONCORD, N.C. — Ryan Preece placed a bet he hoped would pay off in a big way.
The 26-year-old native of Berlin, Conn., inked an agreement in early July with Joe Gibbs Racing to compete in two NASCAR XFINITY Series races. The deal, Preece hoped, would allow him to showcase his abilities in top-notch equipment.
What was Preece’s end goal? Race well enough to attract the attention of sponsors that would allow him to run more races for Joe Gibbs Racing or another top-level NASCAR team.
It was a massive change for Preece, the 2013 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, who ran the entire NASCAR XFINITY Series schedule with JD Motorsports last year. He could have returned to JD Motorsports for the full XFINITY Series schedule again this year, but decided against it.
Instead, Preece elected to take the same amount of sponsorship dollars he used to run the full XFINITY Series in 2016 and use that money to compete in just two races for Joe Gibbs Racing.
It was a massive gamble for Preece, a modified racing star in the Northeast who has been searching for his big break for several years. He made his XFINITY Series debut in 2013 driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing and in 2015 he made five NASCAR Cup Series starts in underfunded equipment, which generated a best finish of 32nd.
Opportunity knocked when he landed at JD Motorsports, the underfunded race team owned by Johnny Davis, for a full season in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2016. The results were lackluster, with Preece earning only one top-10 finish during the 33-race season.
Those results weren’t good enough for Preece, a driver accustomed to winning during a career racing on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour that has seen him win 17 times since 2008.
So Preece decided to bet on himself. He left JD Motorsports and returned to the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour to drive for team owner Ed Partridge. Simultaneously, he began putting together sponsors for one major opportunity in NASCAR’s big leagues.
That opportunity came in the form of that two-race deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. His first race in a JGR Toyota came July 15 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, his home track where he has run thousands of laps.
Preece qualified sixth, raced in the top five for the entire race, led two laps and finished second behind former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch. It was a fantastic result for Preece, but it wasn’t surprising given his experience at the 1.058-mile track.
The real test, many argued, would be his second race with Joe Gibbs Racing on July 29 at Iowa Speedway. Could Preece run well and contend for the victory at a track where he has considerably less experience?
The answer was a resounding … yes.
Preece started by winning the pole for the U.S. Cellular 250, the first pole of his NASCAR XFINITY Series career. He backed that up by dominating the first stage of the race, leading every lap en route to the stage victory.
A slow pit stop between stages forced Preece to play catch-up during the second stage, but he ended that stage second behind Justin Allgaier. A strategic pit call during the third stage got Preece back out front as Allgaier slipped through the field. Suddenly, it looked as if Preece might be in position to do what most didn’t expect: win the race.
Three caution flags during the final 20 laps made things close for Preece, who found himself battling his 19-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Benjamin for the victory. An overtime restart saw the two battle side by side for the final two laps, but in the end Preece would not be denied as he captured his first XFINITY Series victory.
“I’m at a loss for words right now — I don’t even know what to say,” Preece said when he emerged from his Toyota in victory lane. “This is what emotion is, I can tell you that. I thought this race would never end — that’s for sure. But, man, nothing is going to beat today.”
Preece’s triumph wasn’t just a victory for him, it was a victory for short-track racers across the country. Preece represents the Saturday-night short tracker, the racer who spends all week working a day job only to come home and spend all night in the race shop getting ready for the next race.
What Preece did was a major gamble. He bet on himself. He bet on his talent. He bet on his drive. He bet on Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. It was a gamble many others have made, but few have capitalized on. Preece capitalized on it and he made a statement that could be heard across the NASCAR world.
So was the gamble worth it? Preece sure thinks so.
“What I’m going to take away from this is I did it. I proved it to myself and this is awesome,” said Preece.
A week after the victory at Iowa, Preece’s gamble paid off with JGR hiring him to drive the No. 20 in a third race, the Sept. 23 NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Kentucky Speedway.