Monday, May 30, 2022

CUP: Ryan Preece’s strong triple-header at Charlotte ends with early suspension damage

The damage to Preece's left-rear appeared minor, yet proved to be anything but.

Ryan Preece scored the 6th last-place finish of his NASCAR Cup Series career in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when his #15 Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford fell out under the Damaged Vehicle Policy (DVP) after 16 of 413 laps.

The finish, which came in Preece’s 115th series start, was his first of the season and first in a Cup points race since July 4, 2021 at Road America, 30 races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place rankings, it was the 3rd from the DVP, the 29th for the #15, and the 719th from Ford. Across NASCAR’s top three series, it was the 6th under the DVP, the 46th from #15, and the 991st for Ford.

Preece had a promising start to his full-time Cup career in 2019, when he caught the attention of fans in his first Daytona 500, dodging late-race wrecks to finish 8th. But over the following two years, the NASCAR Modified star struggled for consistency, including a streak of three consecutive last-place finishes in the summer of 2020. By then, Preece had been moved from JTG-Daugherty Racing’s primary #47 to their new #37 entry, which last year lost its Charter. After another difficult season as the only “open” team to enter all 36 races, JTG-Daugherty scaled back to a single entry for teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., leaving Preece as a free agent.

Coming to the rescue was Stewart-Haas Racing, which has become the latest team to adopt a strategy most often seen in Formula 1 – hiring a “reserve driver.” As part of Preece’s contract, he would run part-time in all three of NASCAR’s national series, each with SHR-affiliated Ford teams. The deal began with Rick Ware Racing (RWR)’s #15 Cup team at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, whose quarter-mile bullring immediately reminded him of Bowman Gray Stadium. It continued through four Truck Series starts with David Gilliland Racing, where his #17 finished no worse than 7th, a XFINITY race for B.J. McLeod Motorsports at Richmond, taking 16th, and a points race with RWR’s Cup team at Dover, where he ran 25th. 

The biggest challenge awaited Preece in Charlotte, where he would run for all three teams in three races totaling a combined 1100 miles. In Friday’s Truck Series race, Preece led 9 laps, finished 3rd in both stages, and was positioned to challenge a dominant Carson Hocevar after a late-race caution erased a six-second lead and set up an overtime finish. On the restart, Hocevar pulled up to block an advancing Preece down the backstretch, then lost control entering Turn 3, eliminating both in the resulting spin. In post-race interviews, Hocevar took responsibility for the mistake while Preece was critical of Hocevar’s block. On Saturday, Preece’s XFINITY race with McLeod was less controversial. He started 3rd, ran 7th and 5th in the stages, and finished 5th. But as on Friday, he was well behind another dominant Chevrolet. This time, it was Josh Berry, who after a door-to-door battle with JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier racked up an 18.039-second winning margin over Ty Gibbs. 

After the XFINITY race, Preece returned to the track for Cup Series practice and qualifying with the RWR team. Hunt Brothers Pizza, which backed his XFINITY run, rejoined as primary sponsor. As part of the traditional “NASCAR Salutes” program, Preece would also join the rest of the field in honoring a fallen serviceman. His windshield carried the name of Staff Sgt. First Class Gary Ray Harper, Jr., who served with the U.S. Navy. A recipient of both the Bronze Star and Purple Heart who enlisted in 1993, Sgt. Harper died October 9, 2005 while serving in Baghdad.

Preece ranked 26th of the 37 entries in practice, where he spun in Turn 4, then qualified 26th with a lap of 179.158mph (30.141 seconds). Incidentally, the slowest completed qualifying lap was turned by Brad Keselowski, whose #6 Kohler Generators Ford spun in time trials, resulting in a speed of just 92.152mph (58.599 seconds), nearly 30 seconds off Denny Hamlin’s pole lap.

While Keselowski didn’t incur a tail-end penalty for his spin, many others did. In the opening minutes of Group A practice, Corey LaJoie spun and slammed the Turn 2 wall with his #7 The USO / Coca-Cola Chevrolet. LaJoie’s Spire Motorsports crew worked until 7:00 A.M. the next morning preparing his backup car, which secured the 37th spot and incurred a redundant tail-end penalty prior to the start. Also docked was 36th-place Kyle Larson, whose #5 Chevrolet bounced off the outside wall, requiring repairs to the right side of his car that constituted unapproved adjustments. Like LaJoie, Larson didn’t turn a qualifying lap, and inherited the 36th spot. Kaz Grala, his The Money Team Racing entry the lone “open” team in the garage, also incurred a penalty for unapproved adjustments resulting from his hood flying open on his #50 SEGI TV Chevrolet during Group B practice. 

By race day, three more teams would be sent to the back, bringing the total to six penalized drivers. Both 24th-place Aric Almirola in the #10 Smithfield Ford and 29th-place Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. in the #47 Kroger / Reese’s Chevrolet required a steering rack replacement while 21st-place starter Cole Custer in the #41 Chicken Cock Whiskey Ford required a halfshaft change. In the end, Grala’s #50 voluntarily dropped behind the other five docked drivers as the field approached the starting line.

At the start of the race, Grala held the 37th spot, and by the end of Lap 1 was 4.075 seconds back of the leader, 0.721 behind now 36th-place LaJoie. By Lap 3, Cody Ware slipped to 36th in his #51 Nurtec ODT Ford, and Grala narrowed the deficit to 0.434 second. But Grala would soon lose ground again, and this time at a faster rate. By Lap 6, he was 1.331 behind 36th-place Ware, 3.002 behind on Lap 8, and 8.474 back on Lap 13. Grala reported his car was “undriveable” as the spotter warned him of the fast-closing leaders, who put him the first car one lap down on the 15th circuit. Grala was still running in last place, well back of Ware, who had also lost touch with 34th-place Josh Bilicki in the #77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet, when the first caution fell on Lap 18.

Preece pulls behind the wall after time expires.
PHOTO: @DnfRacers

Coming off Turn 4, three cars spun off Turn 4 and slid to the apron. Preece had locked wheels with Chris Buescher in the #17 Fifth Third Bank Ford, who slid down the banking together. Not far behind, Noah Gragson spun his #16 Charlotte Knights Chevrolet to avoid the pair as they stopped on the apron. All three made it to pit road under caution with no visible damage. Grala climbed past Gragson on Lap 18, putting the #16 in last until the following lap, when Preece took over the spot. Gragson and Buescher returned to the track, each a lap down. According to LASTCAR reader @DnfRacers, Preece’s car was jacked up on the left side and remained on that side as their six-minute “Crash Clock” counted down. By Lap 21, Preece was multiple laps down with just 30 seconds remaining. The next time by, the crew said, “We’re done, guys. We’re done.” According to RWR’s Twitter, the crew discovered heavy damage to the toe link in the left-rear suspension. Radio traffic indicated “Couldn’t get the bolts out, it’s all twisted in there.” Dejected, Preece slowly pulled behind the wall on Lap 24, eliminated under the “Damaged Vehicle Policy.”

Spire Motorsports filled the next two spots in the Bottom Five. Josh Bilicki’s race ended with a wreck in Turn 4, where his #77 Chevrolet slapped the wall with the driver’s side. The same fate befell Corey LaJoie’s backup car, which lost a tire in Turn 1 and smashed the wall with the same side. The next victim was Austin Cindric, who lost a left-rear tire entering Turn 4, sending his #2 Menards / Cardell Cabinetry Ford rear-first into the outside wall. Chase Elliott rounded out the Bottom Five in his #9 NAPA Chevrolet when he was collected in the night’s biggest accident in terms of car count after 6th-place Ryan Blaney spun in Turn 1 following a Lap 192 restart. Elliott and Blaney were among the 13 drivers involved.

Another heartbreak was that of Cole Custer, who after his aforementioned pre-race penalty for a halfshaft change was in position for a Top Five in the late stages, only to be eliminated in a pileup off Turn 4 during the first overtime attempt. He finished 21st.

Two overtime finishes pushed the race well past the five-hour mark at 413 total laps – nearly the entire scheduled race distance past the moment Preece fell out of the event. Eighteen cautions – most for single-car spins off Turn 4 – resulted in a war of attrition where only 20 of the 37 starters finished under power with 16 on the lead lap. Among them were Harrison Burton, who in his 15th series start earned a career-best 11th-place showing in the #21 Motorcraft Quick Lane Ford. Cody Ware earned his career-best non-superspeedway finish in 18th, one spot ahead of B.J. McLeod, whose #78 Circle B Diecast Ford equaled McLeod’s season-best 19th in Atlanta. And though 13 laps down at the finish, Kaz Grala earned The Money Team Racing its best finish in 23rd, improving on his previous mark of 25th in COTA.

*This marked the first last-place finish for the #15 in the Coca-Cola 600. The number had finished once in another Cup points race at Charlotte – the Bank of America 500 on October 11, 2014, where Clint Bowyer’s #15 Pink Lemonade 5-hour Energy Toyota had engine issues after 94 laps.

37) #15-Ryan Preece / 16 laps / DVP
36) #77-Josh Bilicki / 31 laps / crash
35) #7-Corey LaJoie / 60 laps / crash
34) #2-Austin Cindric / 145 laps / crash
33) #9-Chase Elliott / 188 laps / crash

1st) Live Fast Motorsports (3)
2nd) Spire Motorsports, Trackhouse Racing (2)
3rd) Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kaulig Racing, NY Racing Team, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Rick Ware Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet (8)
2nd) Ford (5)
3rd) Toyota (1)


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