There are currently four NASCAR Cup Series drivers who have scored a top-10 finish in each of the two races held on the grounds of the Daytona International Speedway so far in 2021. Two of those four are named Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, which should not surprise anyone. But the fact that the other two top finishers are named Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece ought to come as a surprise to many fans and followers of the sport.
Even though the two tracks located inside the racing facility at DIS are very different, the equipment prepared by Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team and Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing crew is good enough to run up front anywhere. Furthermore, those two drivers were the cream of the crop for much of the 2020 season so the fact that they have finished inside the top-10 twice in two races simply indicates that they have picked up where they left off last season.
McDowell and Preece, however, do not drive for teams who commonly run at the front of the pack. Front Row Motorsports, who prepares McDowell’s Fords, has won two races in its history with drivers David Ragan and Chris Buescher while JTG-Daughtery Racing, who maintains Preece’s Chevrolets, scored one win with A.J. Allmendinger in 2014. So, yes, both have shown the ability to win but to say these organizations are consistent front runners would be misleading.
However, the first two races of 2021 are in fact showing that both Front Row and JTG-Daugherty have it in them to contend on at least an occasional basis if not more.
In 2020, McDowell established a new high in the total of top-10 finishes for a Front Row driver when he compiled four such results. That combined with then teammate John Hunter Nemechek’s three top-10s brought about an organizational high total of seven for the season. McDowell is already halfway to his number achieved last year after only two races.
No matter what else might happen this year, McDowell would have a difficult time topping his win in the season-opening Daytona 500 after he parted through the spinning cars of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and held the lead as the caution lights flashed on. He then followed that underdog victory in the sport’s most coveted race with a solid 8th place result in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the DIS road course.
Preece has already matched last year’s total in that he had only two top-10s during the entirety of 2020 after earning three in 2019 for JTG-Daugherty. He and teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. combined to take six top-10s in 2020.
Like McDowell, Preece managed to steer clear of not only the last lap crash but also the big wreck that eliminated a number of top contenders during the first stage of the Daytona 500. He then brought his No. 37 car home in the 9th position one week later on the road course.
Even though the first two races of this NASCAR Cup Series season have been held on tracks that have the ability to produce unexpected results, the past records of these two drivers and the organizations they drive for have done little to cause anyone to predict that Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece would both be near the top of the list in the NASCAR Cup Series standings and would be two of only four driver to currently have earned top-10s in both early season races.
So who would have picked Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece to have two top-10s at this point in the season? No one, that’s who.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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