NASCAR: Three pleasant surprise teams at the Easter break

In a year of dramatic parity, these three NASCAR teams have provided some solid surprise early showings through seven races.

There will be no Easter egg roll on asphalt on dirt for NASCAR’s national series, as the Cup, Xfinity, and Truck units have gone a brief hiatus. The premier Cup Series will return to action next Saturday night at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

With seven of 36 events down at the Cup level, parity has been the name of the game. We’ve seen seven different drivers win the first seven races. While some of the trophy-hoisters have been expected (Martin Truex Jr./Joey Logano), we’ve seen first-time winners (Michael McDowell/Christopher Bell), long droughts end (Kyle Larson/Ryan Blaney), and a young veteran start to build his tally up (William Byron).

This trio of teams has been particularly surprising, as we give them their due on a quiet weekend at the track…

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 08: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 08, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

JTG Daugherty

Many eyes have turned to the NASCAR endeavors of a certain University of North Carolina alum turned NBA All-Star. The subject, of course, is Brad Daugherty and his shared team with Jodi and Tad Geschickter. There’s obviously plenty of time for Michael Jordan’s squad, 23XI Racing, to find their groove. In the meantime, it’s hard not to appreciate what Daugherty’s team has done in this young season.

One of the more interesting stories of the 2021 season is perhaps that of Ryan Preece. His No. 37 Chevrolet doesn’t have a charter, but he has managed to keep it competitive in the early going. Preece was one of four drivers (Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell the others) to finish in the top ten in each of the first two races. He’s also one of 11 drivers who have run at the finish of each of the seven events run so far.

Meanwhile, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came to the team’s No. 47 after a disappointing tenure at Roush Fenway Racing. He has earned top 20 finishes in all seven races to date, capping it off with a runner-up posting at Bristol. The team currently holds one of the 16 playoff spots, a fantasyland that JTG Daugherty has not seen since its lone appearance in 2014 (A.J. Allmendinger). Stenhouse will undoubtedly be capable of winning at Talladega later this month. He won the 2017 spring event and drove the No. 47 to a narrow runner-up finish there last season.

Adding to their consistency, both Preece and Stenhouse have done a great job keeping their cars clean this season. The two have failed to complete only a combined six of a possible 3,388 laps.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: AJ Allmendinger, driver of the #16 Ellsworth Advisors Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series Alsco Uniforms 300 at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing

Anyone who has kept an eye on the NASCAR Xfinity Series would know that Kaulig Racing was on the rise through its victorious triumvirate. Such consistency has continued on the developmental level (Allmendinger won the Las Vegas race while he, Justin Haley, and Jeb Burton have united for 13 top tens). But their Cup program took some steps forward in the early showings as they inch closer to full-time status. Things got started when Kaz Grala raced his way into the Daytona 500’s main event (even leading 10 laps) before Allmendinger earned a top ten run at the ensuing road course event.

“I think it’s been the worst-kept secret that they have aspirations to get to the Cup Series, racing it full-time down the road, try to be a multi-car team down the road,” Grala said following his success at the Bluegreen Vacation Duels. “This is the first small step towards a big picture. I know (racing at Daytona) a victory for everybody at the team.”

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MARCH 29: Daniel Suarez, driver of the #99 Camping World Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 29, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Trackhouse Racing

It was fair to keep expectations low for Trackhouse Racing. Even with strong backing from recording artist and philanthropist Pitbull, new teams have often struggled to gain their footing in modern NASCAR. Behind the wheel was Daniel Suarez, who struggled mightily, even by low-budget standards, in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 last season.

But Suarez has enjoyed a slight resurgence in the seat of the team’s No. 99 Chevrolet. Signs of progress were apparent even before his top five run at the Bristol dirt event. The team probably would’ve earned a top ten finish at Atlanta if not for Suarez’s speeding penalty on pit road. He earned top 20 runs in the next two races after getting caught up in the early “Big One” in Trackhouse’s Daytona debut. The No. 99 currently sits in 20th in the standings, best amongst new teams and 28 points out of a playoff spot.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: JTG Daugherty Racing

As one North Carolina basketball legend prepares to make his NASCAR ownership debut, another is trying to string consistency together.

2021 JTG Daugherty Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Ryan Preece 37 Trent Owens Kroger
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 47 Brian Pattie Kroger/NOS Energy Drink

History

A University of North Carolina basketball legend, a mid-1980s NBA Draft pick, and a star from a 1996 hoops comedy is looking to succeed in NASCAR.

We are, of course, talking about Brad Daugherty, a five-time All-Star with the Whoopi Goldberg film Eddie on his filmography.

Daugherty, the top pick of the 1986 NBA Draft, has been involved in NASCAR since his basketball retirement. Among his first racing endeavors was ownership in the early days of the NASCAR Craftsman (now Camping World) Truck Series. Future star Kevin Harvick was among his drivers, as was the late Kenny Irwin Jr. (who won two races during the 1997 campaign). Daugherty has united with Tad Geschickter and his wife Jodi to form JTG Daugherty racing in 2009, separating from a partnership that originally included Wood Brothers Racing. The team’s lone win to date came in 2014, when A.J. Allmendinger went to victory lane at Watkins Glen.

2020 in Review

The mid-budget squad had a bit of a roller-coaster season. Stenhouse, a two-time Xfinity Series champion, took over the No. 47 Chevrolet from Chris Buescher (ironically occupying Stenhouse’s old ride at Roush Fenway Racing) and got things off to a good start by winning the pole at the Daytona 500 (the team’s first pole since Allmendinger won two in 2015). He led 24 laps of the Great American Race (only Brad Keselowski and winner Denny Hamlin led more), but he fell back to a 20th-place finish. While Stenhouse struggled to maintain consistency, he did recover to finish third in the ensuing race at Las Vegas, two more at Charlotte and Talladega. The latter race saw Stenhouse miss out on a win (and the playoff spot that came with it) by .007 seconds to Ryan Blaney. In either case, Stenhouse’s trio of top five finishes was the best from a JTG Daugherty car since Marcos Ambrose earned four in the team’s debut year.

Things weren’t as bright in the No. 37 stall belonging to Ryan Preece. Taking over a car that Buescher drove into a top 20 standings finish in 2019, Preece endured a brutal summer. Despite starting on the pole in two races at Darlington and Pocono (via 20th-place finishes when the lineup was determined by inverting the top 20), Preece failed to capitalize. July was particularly tough, as Preece finished last in three consecutive races before enduring a particularly scary wreck at Kansas. The Connecticut native did manage to end things on a somewhat brighter note, recording top 20 finishes in eight of the ten playoff races (his best being a 9th at Bristol).

Meet the Drivers

Ryan Preece

Experience: 3rd full season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 29th
Best standings finish: 26th (2019)

Preece is in a precarious position in 2021, as his No. 37 doesn’t own a charter and has sponsorship for 24 of 36 races. He is thus considered an “Open” car, one that could well miss races entirely if he isn’t careful. So far, he’s responded to the pressure well. Preece was the fastest car amongst Open competitors during Wednesday single-car qualifying session and he later finished a career-best fifth in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel race.

“You show up every single week trying to get the most out of your equipment. So that doesn’t change anything about what I’m doing. Our approach for Daytona is the same as it has been every year, except I think we’ll be a little more aggressive than we have been in years past when it comes to stages,” Preece said of his 2021 outlook. “We’re going to continue week after week and hopefully everything is there, we’re having a solid season and everything comes together.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 

Experience: 9th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Daytona, summer 2017)
2020 finish: 24th
Best standings finish: 13th (2017)

We’ve seen Stenhouse steal playoff slots before through superspeedway racing. Wins at both Talladega and Daytona during the 2017 season…thus far the only wins of his Cup career…allowed him to start the 2017 playoffs in the No. 8 seed. He has had chances to get back to victory lane, but fate has been no friend to him.

But Stenhouse saw progress throughout his first year in the No. 47 and was particularly pleased that the team was almost entirely held together from last season to this one.

“We all believe in each other. I feel like this is a really good group of guys that are working on our race cars,” Stenhouse said. “We all believe that we under-performed, as far as the finishes go and the year-end points results. But there were a lot of highs, I feel like, with the speed of our cars when we showed up at the race track.”

“On my side, I need to clean up my pit road mistakes because I feel like I can count on a full hand that I felt like I gave up some really good opportunities to run well inside the top-10 at some of these race tracks from having a pit road penalty. So, for us, I like that we have the same group.”

Outlook

For Preece, the key will be competing in as many races as he can, to treat this season as if it’s an elevator pitch for new sponsors and potentially new teams as well. Stenhouse could well steal a playoff spot in one of the superspeedway events, but getting the No. 47 into the top ten on a consistent basis would be an admirable landmark to reach.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Ryan Preece looking to capitalize on big opportunity

Ryan Preece’s NASCAR career has defined by hard knocks, but the Connecticut native is looking to make the most of a rare opportunity.

In Sunday’s exciting return to NASCAR action, The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway provided late-race drama that a sports-starved nation has salivated over while live events are put on hold. With three circuits to go in the 293-lap event, a dramatic pass was made to secure first-place. The beneficiary then held off a furious challenge over the remaining turns to secure the victory.

Now, this battle did not take place at the front of the pack. Kevin Harvick’s healthy two-second interval was more than enough to hold off Alex Bowman for the win.

But so crazy are our modern times that a battle for 20th in one race wound up determining the leader in the next.

Preece’s pass of Bubba Wallace on lap 291 secured him the pole position, meaning he will lead the field at the start of Wednesday night’s Toyota 500 (6 p.m. ET, FS1). The resulting front row starting spot is part of NASCAR’s efforts to feasibly return during the ongoing health crisis, which eliminates qualifying and practice sessions. The first 20 positions were determined by inverting the top finishers from Sunday’s return event, The Real Heroes 400. It was the premier NASCAR Cup Series’ first competition since shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic nearly two months prior. The remaining 19 positions were determined purely by finishing order, relegating Wallace to starting 21st.

The 29-year-old native of Berlin, Connecticut told Terrin Waack of NASCAR.com that he knew what was at stake with that fateful pass.

“I knew we were in 21st in the last 10 laps,” he said. “We had a really good car to begin with, so it created the opportunity to get back by Bubba (Wallace). But that’s why I was really pushing the issue to get by him because that was the difference of 20 spots, right? It’s going to make you push that much harder.”

It’s a bit of an unusual position for Preece, the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing. The team is perhaps NASCAR’s equivalent of, say, the Memphis Grizzlies…a relatively low-budget team that occasionally musters a name or a win on its docket, but never truly a threat for a championship. One of the team’s owners is former top overall NBA draft pick Brad Daugherty and the spoils of five NASCAR national series victories reside in their trophy case (one at the premier Cup Series level when AJ Allmendinger won the 2014 Watkins Glen race). JTG’s most recent prestigious days came last season when Chris Buescher mustered 16 consecutive finishes in the top 20. Buescher would play that success into a more prestigious ride, taking over the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing.

This is Preece’s second year of both full-time Cup racing and with JTG Daugherty, albeit his first under No. 37 branding. He ran his rookie campaign in the team’s No. 47, whose 2020 duties went to Roush castaway Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He has paid his dues at NASCAR’s lower levels, first making a name for himself on the prototype Whelen Modified Tour with a 2013 championship before earning a pair of national Xfinity Series wins with Joe Gibbs units. Preece was able to provide the team with some much-needed good news during the coronavirus pause by building momentum on NASCAR’s simulated iRacing Pro Invitational Series. The virtual No. 37 earned four top ten finishes over the seven-race exhibition slate held on the iRacing platform. That included a runner-up spot at the Texas Motor Speedway recreation, where Preece fell just short (0.050 seconds) of beating out Timmy Hill for the win.

With the middling budget provided at JTG Daugherty, Preece has done what he can with what he has. His debut with the team, for example, was an eighth-place finish at the 2019 Daytona 500. Since then, however, bad luck has drafted with the team and has refused to back off.

A good follow-up of Atlanta after the opening was ruined by a pit road incident with BJ McLeod. Last October’s Talladega race saw him involved in three big wrecks alone. He was battling Denny Hamlin for the win at the most recent Daytona 500, but a fiery wreck that ate up multiple cars ended his chances with two laps to go.

Preece knows there’s an opportunity to be had on Wednesday night. Part of his Cup Series woes could stem from poor starting position. His best start to date was a 14th-place posting the Charlotte Roval race last fall (he brought the car home 21st that afternoon).

“Track position…is so hard to get,” Preece said. “So if you have a good race car and you already have that track position, then it’s just about everybody executing the way they need to. Staying up front and keeping that clean air right in the front half, front third of the pack, it’s a big deal. That can pretty much set the tone for your race.”

Tough finishes in the early going have created a lot of ground for Preece to make up if he wants to get a JTG Daughtery machine back into the NASCAR playoffs. Their last, and only such endeavor came in the aforementioned 2014 when Allmendinger was able to get to the postseason with the Watkins Glen win as his ticket (the No. 47 finished 13th in the standings that season). Preece is currently 61 points out of the final playoff seed.

Keeping the position won’t be easy. Starting immediately behind Preece in Wednesday’s 228-lap event will be the elite Fords of Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. 19th-place finisher and Preece’s front row companion Ty Dillion will be equally hungry for track position as he is in a similar budget crunch with Germain Racing’s No. 13 Chevrolet.

“We know we have a fast race car,” Preece said Waack. “It’s a bittersweet type of thing because I really felt like we had a much better car than 20th last week. Just circumstances out of your control really is what it is. But at the same time, it gives us an opportunity to rebound on that and have a solid day. Start us off on the right foot when it comes to it on Wednesday.”

For the full starting lineup for Wednesday’s race, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags