Ryan Preece may be learning in the higher levels of NASCAR, but he knows what he has to do.
A racer who is out on tracks across the globe every week, Preece has a deep knowledge for racecar parts and a relatable short track attitude that meets his stellar talent behind the wheel in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Series.
Competing in his 10th season in he open-wheeled series, the 25-year-old has earned 15 victories to match his 56 top 5s and 14 poles. Preece, in return, won the series title in 2013, along with finishing second in the championship four times in the last seven years.
Preece’s major time in the light came last year when he made his Sprint Cup Series debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a track he made 19 Modified starts, finishing a best of third on four occasions. Driving the No. 98 for car owner Mike Curb, the Connecticut native finished only four laps down in the 32nd spot – a reasonable effort for a driver debut in a low-budget team. Ending the 2015 season with four consecutive Sprint Cup races at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, the valuable experience lined Preece up for an opportunity to hit the track in an XFINITY Series car in 2016.
Alas, JD Motorsports and its No. 01 Chevrolet, recently piloted by Landon Cassill, had Preece’s name on the door for the season-opener at Daytona this February. Through eight races, Preece has three finishes of 21st or better and sits 17th in XFINITY points following a 23rd-place run at Richmond International Raceway.
Frontstretch sat down with the XFINITY newcomer to talk about his early experience in Sprint Cup, how stock cars compare to Modifieds and what separates JD Motorsports from the rest of the pack.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Let’s just start with short tracing racing. What does short track racing mean to you in your racing career?
Preece: It’s obviously where I’ve come from since I’ve been a little kid. But 12 years old, 13 years old, really, I’ve been running Modifieds. Started on a quarter-mile up at Evergreen – it’s called Mountain Speedway now – in a modified and just have been growing ever since and getting in different cars and going to bigger tracks.
I love it. You’re aggressive and there’s definitely some personalities in there.
Catanzareti: How does Richmond compare to other short tracks you’ve been on?
Preece: It’s really different to be honest with you. I don’t think there’s any short track that has such a long front straightaway like this place does. Totally different characteristics, [Turns] 1 and 2 versus 3 and 4. I’ve only been here once with that K&N [East] car. I liked it with those cars because the track really widened out for it. Not sure how it’s going to be in these [XFINITY cars] but it’s a racier race track and I’m looking forward to it.
Catanzareti: You did run that K&N race here last year. How does that help you?
Preece: It helps a lot. You’ve been to a race track that you’ve been to before. I think you’ll see that when we go to Loudon. But you kind of understand the characteristics of the race track and, also, just different points that you really need to understand in order to get the car turned, forward drive.
In a race, first practice the car may feel good for a five- or six-lap run, but in the race what is it going to do? Especially off here in turn four. A lot of people lose grip and you start sliding toward the wall. That’s going to be a key.
Catanzareti: Have you found any surprises so far this season? It’s your first full season, youre going to the track every week in this JD Motorsports car.
Preece: Really, the mile-and-a-halves are a little bit – I like them, just a little different. You would think, characteristically, a mile-and-a-half is a mile-and-a-half and they all drive the same. And they really don’t.
The one thing that I’ve kind of noticed that I’ve been playing with a little bit is moving up. As the run goes on, you can move around a lot more. I’ve just been moving around with that really haven’t gotten into it too much.
Still just trying to understand the cars, understand the reasons why it’s doing something. Which I think, with time, understanding those things are going to help us.
Catanzareti: Have much different is an XFINITY car from a Modified car? Pick out the differences.
Preece: A racecar is a racecar, they all turn. A lot of people have a misinterpretation that, because [Modifieds] have 15 inches of rubber that they’re just going to turn on a dime when they really don’t. Characteristically, a Modified gets a lot looser as a race run goes on. But you drive through it where it seems the way XFINITY cars are set up for maximum grip. As a run goes on, you really can’t be free. It just unloads one of the corners, you can’t just drive through it.
Just totally different driving style in the way they’re set up. Just a little bit different to understand.
Catanzareti: You made a few Cup starts last year. That’s a high level of competition. How does that experience help you when it comes down to the XFINITY Series and having that big of competition?
Preece: I would say there are 30 cars who can win there each and every week. And then you had the other 11 or 13 that were there and didn’t quite have the budgets or whatever it took to get to that level. I feel like you’ve got about 18 Cup-affiliated teams on this side of the garage and then you have everybody else.
Right now, hopefully we’ll be battling from that 20th-to-15th range. Then as the season goes on, we’ll be in the 15th-to-10th-place range, so we’re working on it.
It’s just totally different and the level of competition is a little bit different here. I feel like [car owner] Johnny Davis has given us everything we’re working on and progressively getting better and better.
Catanzareti: Do you have any Cup plans in the near future? Tommy Baldwin Racing, teams like that? Have you been looking at things like that?
Preece: I think that Tommy has given me all the support. I talked with him, I was just over there earlier. Not yet, not at all. Just working on getting the car, getting seat time in these cars. That’s what I really need. Getting in that Cup car was awesome last year and giving me seat time and getting me into this.
This is where I need to be right now, I need to be understanding these cars, understand how they work and everything before you can even think about getting into one of those Cup cars and relatively trying to be competitive.
I don’t want to jump into a Cup car right now, at all. You need the right situation, you need to understand it and that’s what I’m working on right now.
Catanzareti: Do you think you got into it too early, having that last year, or are you happy you got that experience early?
Preece: I’m happy I got that experience because I was there, you know what I mean? I don’t think anybody put a predetermined judgement on me. We understood what we were there and what we were doing. I definitely didn’t think I was going to go out and light the world on fire. It was just more of getting seat time, understanding the cars and it kind of helped getting me toward this year.
And the approval process, that’s another huge thing. It got me approved for – I’m pretty sure I can race anywhere in anything at the NASCAR level. That was another big reason. Just experience, seat time is huge and I want to understand how these cars are set up and understand the different things about them.
Catanzareti: How is Johnny Davis? How is he working with you and how have you enjoyed being with him?
Preece: I like him a lot. He’s an honest guy and it’s hard to find honest people in racing nowadays and it’s great to be with him. We’re working on a program, obviously. We don’t have the funding that a team like Joe Gibbs or RCR or any of them have. Do we have the lease motors? Do we have the newest cars? No, we don’t but I feel like we definitely have a team that’s working very hard. We use every resource we can and we get to the race tracks.
I feel like we are running where we expected to be running. Obviously, Ross [Chastain, teammate] is doing really well with qualifying and I’m kind of learning what I need in these cars to have that speed. I feel like, as the year goes on, we’ll have that and hopefully we can start showing that.
Catanzareti: What do you think separates JD Motorsports from other smaller teams?
Preece: I would say Johnny has definitely been around for quite a while. He’s been racing for a while so he’s built up some knowledge. They understand what they’re doing with these cars. We’re kind of getting into the whole shaft spring deal that they allowed this year so we’re learning about it. I believe Ross is still running the pig-tail stuff still, they’ve mastered that whole deal.
I feel once I understand this and understand how to get the maximum amount of grip for the feel that I want with what we got, we’re going to be running a lot better, too.
We maximize everything we can with what we got. I’m very happy with that.
Catanzareti: Moving to Ross Chastain, he’s been in this for a couple years, he had four top 10s last year. What have you learned most from him this season?
Preece: Just talking with him little by little, leaning on him. I more or less learn when I’m behind him seeing the different things his car is doing for what he wants versus what I’ve got.
It helps me give better feedback to Zach [McGowan], my crew chief about, what we need to do to make our car better. I’ve really been leaning on a lot of people, Ryan Newman, Landon [Cassill]. I had a lengthy conversation with him today because he drove for these guys last year. [Talked about] how these cars and how they’re loading on certain things. Just things that I’ve never really worried about in a Modified. It’s relatively, it’s the same but in my mind it’s kind of not. I just have to learn that.
And obviously Regan Smith from Tommy’s team. He’s very available to me, I can talk to him and he helps me whenever he can. I got a lot of people helping me, it’s just going to come to time.
Catanzareti: When it comes to your crew chief Zach McGowan, he’s been with you for a while and moving around. What is it like having that consistent face leading your team?
Preece: I think we’re learning together. He’s very educated and knowledgeable and I would say I’m learning the different things and playing catch-up. You can only do so much if your driver is not very knowledgeable yet. You can tell him what [the car] is doing and then it’s hard for a crew chief. The driver is the one feeling these things so I can lead him down a path that’s not right or I can lead him down a path that is right.
I’m just trying to understand this stuff so I can help us both.
Catanzareti: Do you like a loose or right racecar?
Preece: I like a loose car! Typically, in the past, I think my version of loose is totally different from other people’s version of loose. In these cars, loose isn’t what I’m used to. So right now, we’ve definitely kept it on the tighter side but I’m trying to find that balance to get back to that ‘Hey, I want to roll the center and to be picking up the throttle a lot.’ That’s definitely the thing.
In a Modified, I would say I was turning right more than I was turning left. But in these cars, if youre turning right, it’s definitely not a good thing.
Catanzareti: Tony Stewart is back this weekend. Have you ever spoken to him? Are you excited to have him back and are you going to speak with him this weekend?
Preece: I’ve never spoken to him. I’ve definitely been a fan of his for a long time. I have two of his Midgets, one USAC Midget diecast car at my house and a World of Outlaws [diecast]. He’s always been an inspiration to me and that’s pretty cool to see him back here. I don’t know, when I see guys like him and Kevin Harvick, people I’ve always looked up on on TV.
Even when I see them around – even Junior [Dale Earnhardt, Jr.] – I kind of get starstruck. I’m kind of shy so I don’t really go up to them but I definitely looked up to guys like that. Kasey Kahne, a lot of USAC guys, Ryan Newman, obviously. It’s pretty cool.
About the author
Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.