For Erik Jones and Ryan Preece of Berlin, CT, respective finishes of 10th and 15th in last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race in Las Vegas were quietly effective outings. Considering the teams for which they drive — Richard Petty Motorsports for Jones, JTG Daugherty Racing for Preece — exist on the competitive fringes, as small programs not likely to secure position in the series’ lucrative playoffs.
But Jones and Preece have individually proved themselves as drivers with more to offer than meets the eye. Both are also realistically available in advance of the 2022 Cup Series season. Jones signed a multi-year deal last year containing an opt-out clause, while Preece’s three-year agreement with JTG expires after this season.
Weirdly, given the fickle nature of free agency in NASCAR, they profile as the drivers who can most likely enhance their value in the eyes of teams, potential disruptors in an otherwise mild-mannered market.
They are not the most valuable available drivers on the board, nor are they the free agents with the most name recognition — former series champion Brad Keselowski fits the bill in both instances — but drivers who fit either tend to be exclusively available to the few organizations who can afford them. Keselowski, for one, will have a difficult time finding suitors outside of Team Penske, his current employer, a negotiation lacking leverage unless a new team with deep coffers emerges.
It’s largely a simple exercise when the sport’s elites hit free agency, easy to connect the dots. It’s less straightforward between undervalued drivers and mid-pack teams.
Jones, 25, is on a star trajectory, considering his advanced stats. His career Production in Equal Equipment Rating over his ages’ averages ranks as the eighth best among active Cup Series drivers, ahead of noteworthy names like Martin Truex, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney. In 2020, he ranked first in position retention on preferred groove restarts and fourth in surplus passing value, creating a statistical profile in line with series champion Chase Elliott. His open market value, according to Motorsports Analytics, is $4.372 million per year, making him the third-most valuable driver under 30, after Elliott and Blaney.
Dropped last year by Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones was also passed on by Chip Ganassi Racing, who instead opted for Xfinity Series driver Ross Chastain, and JTG, who elected to retain Preece and Ricky Stenhouse for its two-car program.
The latter decision was a boon for Preece, as was NASCAR’s shift to a schedule where 750-hp tracks comprise 56 percent of the 36-race slate. The 30-year-old driver ranked 29th in PEER last year among returning Cup drivers, but 13th on 750-hp tracks specifically and 12th across the final 10 races of the season. Whether those sample sizes reveal a driver who is both improving and primed for NASCAR’s tracks of the future will be put to an immediate test this season, with considerable success driving up his current open market value far past its $328,000-per-year mark towards seven figures.
His JTG Chevrolet ranked 26th in speed last season, so competing for wins in a traditional manner — speed is the metric most correlative with success in NASCAR’s top series and most other forms of auto racing — was out of the question. But if early returns from a 2021 season are believable, better results could be on the table.
NASCAR made strides over the last few years in closing the competitive gap between haves and have-nots, potentially manifesting in surprising results across the last two weeks on traditional tracks of intermediate length like Homestead-Miami Speedway and Las Vegas. A parts freeze in 2019 and reduced research and development efforts, including limiting aerodynamic study from wind tunnels and computational fluid dynamic simulations, coupled with the sanctioning body’s new wheel-opening templates are believed to have bolstered the parity, giving drivers like Jones and Preece more realistic opportunities for shock results, their talent permeating past their cars’ quantifiable limitations.
Top organizations with rides unaccounted for in 2022 include Penske (where Keselowski is the current driver and likely to return), CGR (with both Chastain and Kurt Busch), Stewart-Haas Racing (with Aric Almirola on an expiring contract) and Hendrick Motorsports (with Alex Bowman on an expiring contract), though it’s not clear whether any of them present realistic options. Both 23XI Racing, owned by Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin, and Roush Fenway Racing have confirmed explorations into potential expansion, long-haul plans that might not materialize within the calendar year.
Options are limited, certainly, but it’d benefit both Jones and Preece to increase their value and test the waters.
Jones is represented in negotiations by Alan Miller, longtime rep for Jimmie Johnson and Hélio Castroneves, while Preece is represented by Josh Jones of KHI Management, an agency owned by current SHR driver Kevin Harvick. The pavement-pounding necessary for drumming up interest will occur, but NASCAR teams prioritize plenty beyond availability, including financial wherewithal. Busch and Almirola are attached to partners Monster Energy and Smithfield Foods SFD 0.0%, respectively, providing them an advantage over drivers without personal sponsor dollars.
Both Jones and Preece face an uphill battle in a sport where results aren’t always commensurate with driving talent; however, a high tally of finishes like the ones we saw from them in Las Vegas could go a long way in earning money, job security and, possibly, more competitive rides within NASCAR’s top tier.