● The 66th Daytona 500 Feb. 18 at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway will mark Ryan Preece’s fifth appearance in The Great American Race. The driver of the No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing earned his best Daytona 500 result in his third Daytona 500 start – sixth in 2021. It was his second top-10 finish in the Daytona 500, with his first coming in his Daytona 500 debut – 2019 when he finished eighth. Preece’s best overall finish at Daytona in eight career NASCAR Cup Series starts at the 2.5-mile oval is fourth, earned in the 2021 Coke Zero Sugar 400.
● Preece is returning to Daytona nearly six months after being involved in a frightening accident in last year’s Coke Zero Sugar 400. The 33-year-old racer from Berlin, Connecticut, was running in a line of cars along the outside wall of Daytona’s backstretch when he was bumped by another car, which turned his racecar into his Stewart-Haas teammate, Chase Briscoe. Preece’s car then lifted off the ground and began flipping violently over the grassy area on the inside of the track, rolling over more than 10 times before finally coming to a rest. Despite the magnitude of the wreck, Preece climbed out of his damaged machine and walked to a waiting ambulance, which took him to nearby Halifax Health Medical Center for precautionary evaluations. After checking into the hospital late Saturday night, Preece walked out before 6 a.m. the next day and was back in his No. 41 Ford Mustang the following weekend for the NASCAR Cup Series’ next race at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
● This is Preece’s second fulltime season with Stewart-Haas. He joined the organization in 2022 as a reserve driver, performing simulator work while running a mix of races across each of NASCAR’s top-three national touring series – Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck. He won his second straight Truck Series race at Nashville (Tenn.) Superspeedway in 2022, bookending the victory he scored in 2021 at the track where he made his Truck Series debut. That performance, as well as his behind-the-scenes work on the simulator earned Preece a promotion to Stewart-Haas’ No. 41 Ford Mustang in 2023. He promptly won his first career Cup Series pole in April at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and highlighted his year with a strong fifth-place finish in July at Richmond (Va.) Raceway. All the while, Preece competed in other series, winning in only his second career ARCA Menards Series West start June 9 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway and scoring his 26th career NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour victory Oct. 26 at Martinsville.
● Preece and his NASCAR Cup Series counterparts had a dress rehearsal for the 2024 season by competing in the non-points Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum Feb. 3 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Preece finished 11th in the 23-car field.
● On-track action at Daytona begins with single-lap qualifying Wednesday night when the front row for the Daytona 500 will be set. The Bluegreen Vacations Duel – twin 150-mile qualifying races that set the 40-car field for Sunday’s race – follows on Thursday. Drivers in odd-numbered qualifying positions compete in the first Duel and those in even-numbered qualifying positions battle in the second Duel to fill out the remainder of the starting grid for the Daytona 500.
● Adorning Preece’s No. 41 Ford Mustang at Daytona is HaasTooling.com, the cutting tool division of Haas Automation. HaasTooling.com allows CNC machinists to purchase high-quality cutting tools at great prices. Haas cutting tools are sold exclusively online at HaasTooling.com and shipped directly to end users. Haas Automation, founded in 1983, is America’s leading builder of CNC machine tools. The company manufactures a complete line of vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers, rotaries and indexers, and automation solutions.
Ryan Preece, Driver of the No. 41 HaasTooling.com Ford Mustang
What is your mindset as you begin your second season with Stewart-Haas Racing?
“I think just starting the season out strong is the big thing. The beginning of these seasons can really dictate how the middle of your season is also going to go and how much of a hole you may or may not have to dig out of. And with it being superspeedways that we’re starting at, those are two wild cards, so to speak, and I think it’s going to be really important to put yourself in good positions. But at the same time, I don’t want to say points racing, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t put yourself in a bad position and put yourself in a hole to start the season.”
Is there any way to mitigate that wild-card aspect of Daytona?
“No, I don’t think there’s necessarily a right answer or a wrong answer. I think sometimes you’ve got to kind of see what’s going on around you and you’ve got to be willing to make that decision, whether it’s time to back out or whether it’s time to go, and then you live with whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision.”
As a kid growing up in Connecticut, what did the Daytona 500 mean to you, and was competing in the Daytona 500 something you always aspired to do?
“The Daytona 500 for us, up north, with it being February and still kind of in the middle of the winter, it was kind of that midway-through-winter, get-things-going-and-get-excited-for-racing time. For most of us who had our cars in our garage, it was more of a time to get going, get your car ready for the race season. That’s kind of what it was for us up there at home. Now, living that dream and competing at NASCAR’s highest level and being in the Daytona 500 – I want to say it’s my fifth Daytona 500, now – so it’d be nice to have the same type of luck I had in 2019 and put ourselves in position to win.”
You’ve competed in four Daytona 500s (2019, 2020, 2021 and 2023). What is it like to drive in the Great American Race?
“Most sports have one of their biggest events at the end of the season, where ours is – I don’t want to say it’s the biggest one at the beginning of the season, but it pretty much is. That’s the crown jewel event that every driver – we all want to win every race, but if you can put that on your resume and be a Daytona 500 winner, that’s a huge deal. Obviously, each and every one of us wants to go out there and do that, and I feel not necessarily more pressure, but knowing how fast our superspeedway cars were last year, I feel really good going into it.”
How important is the driver-spotter relationship at Daytona, and what kind of information do you need from your spotter when you’re in a 200 mph freight train?
“That’s a good question that most people don’t really understand or know, or may not really, truly realize, how much information we’re leaning on our spotters for. We can only see, basically, the rear bumper of the car ahead of us, which is inches in front of our bumper, so we rely heavily on our spotters to communicate to us, to say, ‘Hey, cars are checking up, they’re stacking up.’ And you don’t want to be that guy who drills the car in front of him, so you almost have to be somewhat cautious until the last two or three laps where you start getting more aggressive and pushing. You really rely on your spotter to tell you what the energy of the pack is and have a good understanding of how aggressive or not aggressive people are being.”
Drivers are often asked about their strategy in a superspeedway race. But what strategy is there for the entire week of Daytona, where you want to show speed, but also keep a clean car through qualifying, the Duel and then, finally, the Daytona 500?
“There’s definitely a balance. You don’t want to wreck your car in the Duel. The Duels do pay points, so you have to be aggressive, but you really don’t want to put yourself behind the eight-ball going into the 500. A lot of us, depending on where you are, you tend to, I don’t want to necessarily say take it easy, but you weigh your pros and cons in those final few laps. And that’s crazy to say, because we’re traveling 200 miles an hour, inches apart, but those are the things you think about. As well as, once you get through the Duels, it’s definitely letting the team go through their checklist making sure there’s nothing wrong, and prepare yourself for 500 miles.”
Your last race at Daytona was an eventful one. What do you remember about the accident? Were you aware of what was happening the entire time?
“Aware? I would say a lot of things were happening at that moment in time. So for me, whenever a wreck of that magnitude is happening, you close your eyes when it’s happening and you open them when it’s over. Going back now is going to be something where I get to drive through that tunnel and the goal afterward is obviously to try and win that race and put ourselves in the best position possible. At the same time, I want to be able to drive out of that tunnel on my own at the end of the day.”
Is there any trepidation in returning to Daytona?
“No, there’s not. As a racecar driver, I think we all understand the risks that we take. I chose this profession for a reason, so if I’m afraid to drive a racecar and get the max potential I can, then I should probably retire and just quit.”
Your racecar proved to be incredibly safe, and you even got to check it out a few days later at the NASCAR R&D Center. What were your takeaways from seeing that ravaged racecar knowing that you climbed out of it and raced the very next weekend?
“I think that was probably about as vicious of a wreck as you can get, and to see the car really hold up to those conditions, it makes you feel better as a racecar driver. But obviously in our sport, we continue to evolve and continue to try and make things better, so it was also nice to see some things that we could continue to work on.”
Last year was just OK. You obviously wanted more. How ready are you to start this season and go into the Daytona 500 with the same amount of points as everyone else?
“That’s kind of what I put the emphasis on, it’s important to start your season not in a hole. We were pretty good, we had some solid runs going at the beginning of the season, but unfortunately we either didn’t capitalize on them, or we didn’t get the points that we needed to. That put us in a hole and, for the rest of the season, we ended up having to climb ourselves out. Going into this season, it’d be nice to be on the other side of things and be aggressive and be able to put some good points up.”