MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Ryan Preece is a rookie struggling to find his rhythm at NASCAR's top level. But as the series shifts to Martinsville Speedway, the first short track on the schedule, Preece may have a slight advantage on some of his competition for the first time this season.
Preece took an unconventional path to the Cup Series and established himself on short tracks across the Northeast. The Connecticut native eased into NASCAR via the Whelen Modified Tour, where he won 22 races and the 2013 series championship.
His first win in that series? At Martinsville, of course.
"I expect that we should show really well and at least be running top 10 and hopefully get a top five by the end of the weekend," Preece said of his hopes for Sunday's race.
Martinsville, at 0.526 miles, is the shortest track on the Cup schedule and the only circuit visited every year since NASCAR's 1948 formation. It's referred to as "The Paperclip" for its combination of long straightaways and flat, narrow turns, and drivers must master a hard brake then transition into a smooth acceleration to find any sort of success.
It was an eye-opener in Saturday's first practice for Corey LaJoie, who lost his brakes entering a turn and destroyed his primary car.
"There is no coffee strong enough that will wake you up like losing brakes into Turn 1 at Martinsville. It's not a good feeling," LaJoie said as his backup car was unloaded from the team truck.
"It's unfortunate because small teams like ours, we don't really bring a backup that's fully ready to go, so my guys have a lot of work ahead of them. I'll probably pitch in and help a little bit, but, obviously, our backup is not going to be as good as the car that we choose and bring as our primary."
Preece also drives for a small team, JTG Daugherty Racing, but believes Martinsville will be a strong stop for the two-car organization. AJ Allmendinger drove the No. 47 Chevrolet until Preece replaced him this year and Allmendinger had five top-10 finishes in 10 Martinsville races with the team. Allmendinger finished second in this race in 2016.
Preece is admittedly most comfortable on short tracks. In the Xfinity Series, Preece lodged six top-10 finishes on tracks one mile or shorter and won at Iowa Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway the last two years.
Those Xfinity races got him to the Cup Series, and now he's eager to jump-start his season. Preece finished eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, where he was lauded for his evasive maneuver through a huge accident scene, but crashed at Atlanta and Phoenix. He was 23rd last weekend at California.
But Martinsville kicks off two short tracks in three weeks for NASCAR, and Preece believes this stretch can jump-start his season.
"Definitely short tracks like Martinsville, Bristol, New Hampshire, those are kind of in my wheelhouse," he said. "It's something I've been doing for a long time. When it comes to the restarts and all those moments of being aggressive, it's something that I enjoy doing.
"It's what most of us that come through the ranks grow up doing — heavy braking, getting the car turned, being able to drive off the corner, pick the throttle up as quick as possible. These (recent) mile-and-a-halves, that's just a different package where you're on the throttle so much, it's kind of outside the nature of what I'm used to doing. Going to a place like Martinsville, and I would say even the next few races, it's going to be very familiar to what my background is."
Only nine drivers in the field Sunday have previous Cup wins at Martinsville, including Clint Bowyer, the defending race winner who led Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola as the three fastest drivers in Saturday's morning practice.
Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers with nine Martinsville victories, while Kyle Busch won in 2016 and 2017 and goes into Sunday's race coming off consecutive Cup victories. His win last week at California was the 200th national series victory Busch, who is NASCAR's only two-time winner to date this season.