NASCAR: The underrated Cup Series star of Daytona

Ryan Preece, JTG Daugherty Racing, Daytona, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Ryan Preece, JTG Daugherty Racing, Daytona, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

One driver who didn’t garner much hype at all may have been the star of the first two races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season at Daytona.

In any given discussion about which drivers made headlines in the first two races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season at Daytona International Speedway, the names discussed would be obvious.

Denny Hamlin dominated the Daytona 500 but came up shy of winning it for the third year in a row. Yet following two top five finishes to open up the season, he is the obvious points leader.

Joey Logano led late in both the Daytona 500 and the road course race, but he lost the lead with under a lap and a half to go in both events.

Chase Elliott dominated the road course race, as expected.

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But a questionable caution flag period turned his race upside down and played a role in him failing to extend his road course winning streak to five.

Michael McDowell led only the final lap of the Daytona 500 to secure his first win in his 358th start. Christopher Bell became a new first-time winner one week later in the road course race, winning in his 38th start. And of course, there were separate storylines for all the usual drivers who generate storylines: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Bubba Wallace, etc. You get the picture.

But one driver who didn’t get much attention at all despite an amazing start to the season is the driver of the #37 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing, Ryan Preece.

Preece had been rumored to lose his ride with the team after last season, a disappointing sophomore season to say the least.

He didn’t lose his role with the team, but he lost his guaranteed entry intro every race on the 36-race calendar, thanks to the team selling the #37 car’s charter to Spire Motorsports.

The 30-year-old Berlin, Connecticut native was not guaranteed a spot in this year’s Daytona 500. He needed to qualify on either time or in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels. He did both, with the latter being officially classified as how he locked himself into the field — which actually ignited a separate controversy.

He ran at the front for pretty much the entire race and avoided the massive wreck at the end to finish in sixth place, his best finish since his career-high third place finish at Talladega Superspeedway in April of 2019 and the second best finish of his career.

He backed it up with a ninth place finish at the Daytona International Speedway road course, and through two races, the driver who wasn’t guaranteed to even have one start under his belt by this point in the season sits in seventh place in the point standings.

Preece didn’t finish higher than ninth place all year last year. His top finish was a ninth place effort at Bristol Motor Speedway in September. He had only one other top 10 finish, a 10th place finish at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

Yet already, he has recorded two consecutive top nine finishes to start off the new season, and his average finish of 7.5 ranks behind only Denny Hamlin (4.0), Michael McDowell (4.5) and Kevin Harvick (5.0). Only Preece and those other three drivers have finished in the top 10 in both of the season’s first two races.

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The Cup Series is set to race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this Sunday, February 28 in the Dixie Vodka 400. Preece finished in 25th and 24th place at the track in his first two starts with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Will he keep his hot streak alive to start the 2021 campaign? Fox is set to broadcast the race live beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.