When the NASCAR Cup Series traveled to Los Angeles, California for the unofficial start to the season in February, there was lots of optimism surrounding Stewart-Haas Racing, with the addition of Ryan Preece.
Scoring a seventh-place finish after leading late in the Busch Light Clash at the LA Memorial Coliseum only put additional gasoline on the hype fire. But, as has been well-documented this season, that exhibition event has served as one of the very few bright spots for the Berlin, Connecticut native in his first season driving the No. 41 Ford Mustang.
Aside from scoring a pole position and leading 135 laps early at Martinsville in April, Sunday's Cook Out 400 at Richmond was arguably the strongest the NASCAR Cup Series field has seen the 32-year-old driver.
Scoring his third top-12 starting spot of the year, Preece was quickly able to show speed around the three-quarter-mile short track, ranking as the leader in Green Flag Speed, per NASCAR's Loop Data.
However, the bread-and-butter of the No. 41 team - as well as his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates - appeared to be on the long run, where the 2013 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion ranked second, behind only Aric Almirola.
Green Flag Speed - Cook Out 400 at Richmond:
|Rank||#||Driver||Green Flag Speed (MPH)|
Per NASCAR Loop Data
Long Run Speed - Cook Out 400 at Richmond:
|Rank||#||Driver||Long Run Speed (MPH)|
Per NASCAR Loop Data
That speed would become crucial for Preece in the early portion of Sunday's 400-lap contest, after an incident on pit road dropped the United Rentals-sponsored machine from just outside the top-five, to outside the top-15.
Slicing his way through the middle portion of the field to start the second stage, Preece was able to benefit from a call by crew chief Chad Johnston to split the 160-lap stage into thirds.
That strategy decision, which played a major role in returning Preece to seventh at the end of the second stage, was instrumental in getting the Stewart-Haas Racing driver back in contention for a top-five result.
Johnston and Preece repeated that strategy in the event's final stage, as well, which for the second time in Sunday's 400-lap contest gained the driver of the No. 41 track position, putting him as high as third place.
Running in third when the race's sole for-cause caution was displayed inside the final 10 laps, Preece got the chance to line up second on the inside lane but was unable to challenge Buescher, slipping back to fifth place.
"My confidence was I've seen what Chad [Johnston] has given here in years past and we talked a lot about what we were gonna need," said Preece. "I said, 'If you can get me to roll the center, I'll deal with loose in,' so that's what he gave me today and this United Rentals Ford Mustang was pretty stout. Fifth, but we lined up in that second row at the end, but we run more like this and we're going to have more opportunities to challenge for wins."
The fifth-place result - on top of being the first top-10 finish for the driver of the No. 41 Ford Mustang in 2023 - is also the best non-superspeedway result for Preece in the NASCAR Cup Series to date.
Adding a metaphorical cherry to the top of Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series event, was the fact that Stewart-Haas Racing as an organization had one of its best races in quite some time.
In addition to a top-five result for Preece, the organization had all four of its entries finish inside the top-11 - Aric Almirola (8th), Kevin Harvick (10th), and Chase Briscoe (11th) - for the first time since March 2020 at Phoenix Raceway.
"We all did (run well). I think that's just a product of working hard," said Preece. "Sitting and twiddling your thumbs isn't gonna get you the results that you really want. I know that from racing, so we've just been working hard and trying to find what I like, find what Aric [Almriola] likes, Kevin [Harvick] likes, Chase [Briscoe] likes and I feel like we're all trending in that direction."
Preece, along with the entire Stewart-Haas Racing brigade, will look to take advantage of a historically strong track for the organization, and Ford Performance as a whole, in hopes of scoring his first-ever playoff berth.
Image Credit: Rusty Jarrett, NKP, Courtesy of Ford Performance