By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
New Hampshire Motor Speedway will remain an elusive track for Ryan Preece. As his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell took the checkered flag, Preece settled for third in Saturday’s Lakes Region 200 in Loudon, leading six of 200 laps and continuing to impress the NASCAR paddock.
The 2013 Whelen Modified Tour Champion was in the mix for the win on the final restart on Lap 183, but wasn’t able to amount a serious charge against Bell and pole sitter Brad Keselowski. His third-place effort marked Preece’s third top-five finish in five Xfinity Series starts this season.
Preece felt he could’ve been in that battle if his car was looser, and noted that the one-mile track felt different after the 100-lap Eastern Propane & Oil 100 modified race was held earlier in which he competed in.
“Probably just be a little looser,” said Preece. “You know, all day yesterday we fought being too loose and we kept tightening it up and, you know, as soon as I went out there in the modified, I’m like, ‘Man, this track is totally different,’ so I think if we left it alone maybe, but, you know, these guys that are on this team – the 18, Eric Phillips (crew chief), Chris Gabehart was my crew chief last year – they do a great job making me look good, so one day hopefully I can to get victory lane for New England.”
In nine starts at Gibbs, he has two wins, a pole, seven top-fives, and eight top-10 finishes. Despite these incredible performances, his afternoon at Loudon proved to be an uphill battle.
After crashing late in the modified feature, Preece’s disappointing start took an upswing because Keselowski missed the driver’s meeting. Therefore, he had to relinquish his number-one spot, and it put Preece, who qualified in third, up a row and led the field to the green flag.
Preece couldn’t get going on the start, giving the advantage to Bell in Turn 1. It didn’t took long for Preece to recover, and had a solid battle with Bell throughout Stage 1. However, it was Bell who controlled the stage, leading the first 48 laps. Despite battling a tight car at center, Preece never lost sight at the lead and ended the stage in second.
The restart on the 54th lap went much better for the Bristol winner and took the lead from Keselowski on the backstretch. Preece led the next four laps before Keselowski passed him to lead the next 26 laps. The 22-time Modified Tour winner would only lead one more lap in the afternoon.
Preece gave it one last effort to pass Keselowski to win Stage 2 with two laps remaining, but he came in hot in Turn 3 and wobbled, losing his momentum and was later passed by Daniel Hemric for second. Keselowski took the stage victory while Preece took third.
Pit strategy put Preece back in 20th, and remained quiet for most of the final stage as he slowly worked his way back into the top-10. Then on Lap 163, Preece made his final stop, taking four tires and fuel.
Five laps later, Jeremy Clements hit the sand barriers at pit entry to bring out the caution. The race was stopped for seven minutes to clean up the area before resuming the action. Preece was running in sixth at the moment of caution, and it put him back into the race-winning picture.
With 27 laps to go, Preece wasted no time to use the bottom line and improved two track positions. Shortly thereafter, the action was slowed down for the seventh and final time when Chad Finchum and Garrett Smithley wrecked at the exit of Turn 1.
Preece restarted on the outside, but it didn’t stop him from exciting the fans on his driving style and took third from John Hunter Nemechek in Turn 3. Soon, the four-car battle went down to three, then down to just Bell and Keselowski, as the 27-year-old saw their cars became smaller and smaller. Once he crossed the line in third, his No. 18 Falmouth Ready Mix Toyota Camry was nearly two seconds behind his teammate.
After Saturday, Preece is slated to run five or six more races for Gibbs this season, giving him more opportunities to score his third career Xfinity Series win, and the second of 2018 at a later race date.