Wednesday, May 20, 2020

CUP: Ryan Preece starts first, finishes last in rough week at Darlington for JTG-Daugherty Racing

Ryan Preece scored the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Wednesday’s Toyota 500K at the Darlington Raceway when his #37 Tide Chevrolet blew the engine after 69 of 208 laps.

The finish came in Preece’s 47th series start. In Cup Series last-place history, it was the 39th for the #37, the 694th from engine trouble, and the 780th for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three divisions, it was the 45th for the #37, the 1,087th from engine woes, and the 1,709th for Chevrolet.

In a few short years, peaks and valleys have defined the career trajectory of Preece, the 29-year-old NASCAR Modified Series star who designed his helmet after Cole Trickle's from "Days of Thunder." Hard racing and the persistent search for sponsorship earned him a one-off ride in the XFINITY Series in 2013, where he finished 24th at Loudon. He got his first taste of the Cup Series two years later, making five races for Phil Parsons Racing as the team was absorbed into Premium Motorsports. He finished under power in each race, including at Martinsville, where he was sitting at the exit of pit road the moment a lapped Matt Kenseth wrecked Joey Logano out of the lead heading into Turn 1.

Next came a full-time XFINITY Series ride for JD Motorsports, where he earned his first top-ten finish at Darlington and ranked 17th in points at season’s end. This caught the attention of Joe Gibbs, who brought him on board to run part-time for his own XFINITY Series program. In his 19 starts for the team, Preece finished outside the Top 10 only five times, and scored a pair of victories at Iowa and Bristol.

Preece was then welcomed to JTG-Daugherty to compete for Rookie of the Year, taking the place of A.J. Allmendinger in the #47 Chevrolet. He caught the attention of many in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he skillfully avoided a multi-car pileup with a narrow escape on the apron. He finished 8th that night, and two months later took 3rd in Talladega for his current career-best. He also continued his strong runs in the XFINITY Series, where his four starts with JR Motorsports were all lead-lap finishes in the Top 10. He also was leading much of the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma before he was black-flagged on the final restart, handing the win to Noah Gragson. Cup, however, proved more challenging, and in the final stretch he lost Rookie of the Year to Daniel Hemric.

This year sees Preece swapping rides with new teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., moving him to the #37 vacated by Chris Buescher. Prior to the suspension of the season, his best finish came just before the cutoff at Phoenix, where he ran 18th. He then participated in all seven rounds of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational, where he again caught the attention of viewers with many strong runs. He ran 8th in the opener at Homestead and nearly took the next race at Texas, where he was edged by Timmy Hill for the victory. A 6th at Bristol was followed by a pole at Richmond, where he finished 19th after an online scuffle with Matt DiBenedetto. But after a 3rd at Talladega, he failed to finish the final two rounds at Dover and North Wilkesboro.

Sunday’s return to racing at Darlington proved significant as Preece edged Bubba Wallace for 20th in the final laps. The scheduled inversion of the Top 20 for Wednesday’s race meant Preece would line up on the pole under the lights. His paint scheme was bright orange and white, an updated version of the classic “Tide Ride” to represent the sponsor’s “Power Pods” laundry detergent.

Scheduled to roll off last was Stenhouse, Preece’s teammate, who finished last Sunday after a first-lap accident. He would soon be joined by five drivers who dropped to the rear for penalties. First were 28th-place Gray Gaulding in the #27 Panini America Ford and 29th-place J.J. Yeley in the #77 Bon Secours #TheRealHeroes Chevrolet, as both teams changed drivers since Sunday (Yeley was swapped in for Reed Sorenson at the last minute, Sorenson taking over as the #77’s spotter). Both 31st-place Corey LaJoie in the #32 Keen Parts “Thank a Hero” Ford and 38th-place B.J. McLeod in the #78 Christensen Arms Chevrolet were docked for multiple inspection failures. McLeod’s particular penalty warranted a pass-through after the green flag. Last to join them was 13th-place Erik Jones, whose team had made unapproved adjustments to the #20 DeWalt Toyota after inspection.

Persistent rain forced the field to run under caution for several laps, and even run single-file to dry one of the grooves. Only after the field doubled-up for the one to go signal did the five penalized drivers drop to the rear. Jones dropped back on the inside line as the field headed down the frontstretch, putting him in front of McLeod on the inside line. Jones then swapped spots with the car in front of him, the #00 Good Greek Movers Chevrolet, so the two cars in front of the trailing McLeod were Houff and Gaulding. McLeod looked to have a better run than Sunday, where he pulled off track after 13 laps due to engine woes. In addition to engine repairs, the driver radioed thanks to his crew for replacing the steering box.

When the race started, McLeod’s crew told him to pull the #78 to the apron in Turn 3 and make his trip down pit road. The driver finished his pass-through and slotted in just behind the 38th-place car, putting him exactly one lap down. As he came up to speed, the caution fell for the night’s first incident on Lap 4. Involved was John Hunter Nemechek, who brought the same #38 SCAG Ford with which he earned a career-best 8th on Sunday. This time, the car snapped loose in Turn 3 and hit the wall with the left-rear. As McLeod earned the Lucky Dog, Nemechek immediately took over last place, and lost a lap of his own.

Nemechek was advised by his crew that his car would “be a handful” as the rear spoiler was damaged in the impact. The crew also struggled to seal up the damaged rear decklid, which also made things more difficult for the gas man to refuel the car. Still, Nemechek cleared the “Crash Clock” on Lap 9, and prepared for further repairs on the Lap 25 competition caution. Unfortunately, Nemechek again spun on Lap 12, and damaged the rear clip further by backing into the backstretch wall. In those four laps since the restart, he’d already passed three cars, including Gaulding and Houff. Under caution, Nemechek’s team put spring rubbers behind both rear wheels, made quick repairs, and brought him back onto the track, two laps down. He again cleared the “Crash Clock,” and was still last under the competition caution, when he got one lap back.

Under the caution, Nemechek got another set of fresh tires in an attempt to keep from losing more laps to the leaders. He was warned he would likely have to run scuffs near the end of the race. The new tires allowed Nemechek to pass McLeod on the track on Lap 38 as the driver continued to contend with radio issues. Nemechek once again fell two laps down on Lap 48, two circuits after McLeod lost his first. Clint Bowyer caught Nemechek down the backstretch with three to go in Stage 1, putting the #38 a third lap back. At the time, the supports holding the left-rear had failed, causing the quarter-panel to flap behind him. A piece of this panel was removed under the ensuing stage caution.

Preece didn’t enter the last-place battle until just after the Lap 69 restart, when his #37 erupted in smoke heading into Turn 3 and pulled out of line. At the time, he was still among the leaders. Preece pulled down pit road under green – the caution wouldn’t fall until Michael McDowell and Chris Buescher tangled on Lap 73. On that same lap, Preece took over last place from the damaged Nemechek. On pit road, the JTG-Daugherty team had looked under Preece’s hood, then pushed him behind the wall. A crew member was heard to say “I’ll definitely see you on Sunday” before the radio went silent. It was not until Lap 75 that NASCAR Officials reported Preece was in the garage with “mechanical” issues, and not until Lap 89 that officials declared him out with engine woes.

While McLeod and Nemechek remained the final two cars running for much of the race, the positions changed in the final moments before rain stopped the event 20 laps short of the advertised distance. Taking 38th was a furious Chase Elliott, whose #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet led 28 laps and was racing Kyle Busch for 2nd in the final laps when Busch inexplicably came up into him on the frontstretch, hooking the #9 head-on into the inside wall. Elliott was apparently unhurt as he climbed from his car and gave the middle finger to Busch's passing Toyota. After the race, Busch apologized for the wreck, saying it was a mistake and not intentional.

The ensuing seven-lap caution lengthened by rain was just one lap enough to drop Elliott behind Brennan Poole, who himself fell out short of the finish due to transmission issues. Poole received his first real television time of the season when the Premium Motorsports / Rick Ware Racing crew used pit strategy to keep his #15 Spartan Go Chevrolet among the leaders. Poole led Lap 182 during caution flag pit stops and held 4th for the Lap 188 restart. He then dropped back after the green, making contact with Kyle Busch as he pulled into the high lane exiting Turn 2. He dropped out of the Top 10 three laps later, and was outside the Top 20 after a round of caution flag pit stops on Lap 196. The mechanical issue arose around this time, dropping Poole to 37th.

McLeod and Nemechek completed the Bottom Five, both of them on the same lap, each six circuits down.

*This marked only the third time car #37 finished last in a Cup Series race at Darlington. The last time it happened was on April 12, 1981, when Mike Alexander’s #37 Rogers Auto Leasing Buick lost an engine after 9 laps of the CRC Chemicals Rebel 500. The other time was September 7, 1970, when Dr. Don Tarr’s #37 Coca-Cola / Biscayne Dodge 1969 Dodge crashed after 11 laps of the Southern 500.
*Preece is also the fifth driver to finish last at Darlington after starting in the first spot (he did not win the pole due to the field inversion from Sunday’s race). The last time it happened was on May 10, 2008, when Greg Biffle’s #16 3M Ford lost an engine after 234 laps of the Dodge Challenger 500. The 95 laps Biffle led that night were the most by a NASCAR last-place finisher before the current rule change allowing for post-race disqualifications.

39) #37-Ryan Preece / 69 laps / engine
38) #9-Chase Elliott / 200 laps / crash / led 28 laps
37) #15-Brennan Poole / 201 laps / transmission / led 1 lap
36) #78-B.J. McLeod / 202 laps / running
35) #38-John Hunter Nemechek / 202 laps / running

1st) JTG-Daugherty Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) Hendrick Motorsports, Leavine Family Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Toyota (3)


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