Just when you thought money was the only way to get an opportunity in NASCAR, along comes a trio of talent-first stories to provide at least some evidence to the contrary.
First there was Ross Chastain, whose ability to elevate his JD Motorsports ride earned him a chance with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team — for whom he recently won the Las Vegas race. The rest of his story is still unwritten, but at least he got a shot.
Then, on Friday, two talent-first drivers were given the kind of opportunities that represent hope for the future: Daniel Hemric was named driver of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Cup car and Ryan Preece was announced as the driver of JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47.
Both will compete for Cup Series Rookie of the Year and neither had to bring armored trucks full of money to do it.
That might be a small victory, but it’s still notable these days.
Hemric, a North Carolina native, grew up with NASCAR dreams while racing in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became one of the country’s best Late Model drivers and has consistently contended in NASCAR’s lower ranks — albeit without a win.
“It just says it can be done,” Hemric said of making it to the top without millions of dollars behind him. “To any racer out there who thinks it can’t be done, today is a huge step to show it can be.”
Then there’s the story of Preece, who took a gamble on himself by borrowing money to secure two starts with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team. In his own personal must-win situation, Preece finished second to Kyle Busch in his first race with JGR and then won at Iowa. That led to a pair of additional races in 2017, when he had two more top-five results.
This season, Preece won another Xfinity race — and $100,000 in the Dash 4 Cash, which allowed him to pay off his loans.
It also opened the door for even more opportunities with JGR and caught the attention of JTG Daugherty, which hired him on talent alone.
“If you are going to fall down that hole of ‘Money, money, money’ you will never make it,” Preece said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not. There were a lot of nights I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I didn’t know if I could even make it to this level.
“I was going to try, though. I was going to try like hell.”
The effort resulted in a job at NASCAR’s highest level — and it might not have happened had he never invested in himself, first. As it turns out, that was a necessary part of Preece’s journey.
“The fact that he has been able to win in Xfinity against the best of the best, obviously that put him higher up on the list,” Geschickter said. “He was definitely on the radar anyway … (but) it didn’t hurt.”
Will stories like these suddenly become a trend? Not likely, as money continues to rule in today’s NASCAR. But that makes them all the more notable when a team rewards a driver with an opportunity based on talent — not how much money they can bring.