To call them underdogs would be a disservice, so a better way to describe them is to say they’ve been overlooked.
Ross Chastain (Cup), Josh Berry (Xfinity) and Ty Majeski (Trucks) all faced long roadblocks in their careers. They were all racing for a championship this year. Although neither won a title, they give hope to grassroots and midfielders that there is a chance to compete for race wins and a championship in NASCAR’s Premier Series.
Ryan Preece’s hiring Wednesday to drive the No. 41 Cup car for Stewart-Haas Racing next season caps a year in which overlooked drivers demanded attention with their on-track performance.
Coming from the modified ranks, Preece joins this group on his return to the Cup.
“This is a second chance for me, but they are few and far between,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
After racing a full season with a low-budget Xfinity Series team in 2016, Preece took what resources he had and turned them into a four-race showcase with Joe Gibbs Racing. He figured it was better to get attention for running at the top than run at all. He won in Iowa on his second start of the year.
That led to a 15-race run in the Xfinity Series with JGR in 2018 and a full-time Cup drive the following year with JTG Daugherty Racing. He ran for three seasons with JTG, including the final non-charter year for the team before his split.
Stewart-Haas Racing signed him to do simulator work and be a reserve driver last season. He competed in two cup, three Xfinity and 10 truck races this year and won once in trucks.
Co-owner Tony Stewart wanted Preece with the 2023 SHR Cup program. Preece will have a second chance to show he can have the same success in the Cup that he has had in other NASCAR series.
Chastain and Majeski know second chances.
Chastain worked nearly four Xfinity seasons of underfunded rides before taking his break in 2018 in a three-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity program.
Chastain won on his second start with the team and took the checkered flag in Las Vegas. He was signed to join Ganassi full-time before the FBI raided his sponsor’s headquarters and CEO’s home in December 2018. Chastain’s funding was gone, as was his team.
He admits that for a while he thought he was “done with NASCAR racing.
“In my head I never thought I’d have an opportunity like this again once that (ride) was gone and I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run worn out tires (for underfunded teams),” he said previously the playoffs. “In the end I decided to go back and run worn tyres.”
He ran for a low-budget Xfinity and Cup team and, this season, a winning truck team as well. It led him to Ganassi’s Cup drive in 2021. He joined Trackhouse Racing after the team bought Ganassi’s assets. Chastain won two cup races and finished second in the series that year.
Majeski, a Wisconsin driver who came from the ranks of the Super Late Models, was part of the doomed 2018 Xfinity Series #60 ride at Roush Fenway Racing, sharing the car with Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe. Majeski was unable to finish four of his first eight races because of falls. Although his performance improved in his last few races, it wasn’t enough to keep him in the series.
He returned to short track racing, racing Super Late Models.
“My short-track success has always kind of kept me… relevant,” said Majeski, a two-time Slinger Nationals champion and 2020 Snowball Derby winner. “It’s been able to keep opening up some opportunities for me.”
He later worked as an engineer at ThorSport Racing and didn’t get a full-time NASCAR drive on the trucks with ThorSport until last year. He finished with two wins and placed fourth in the series standings.
“It’s been a long road and obviously when you don’t succeed at that level you start to doubt yourself,” Majeski said. “I’m just happy that I was able to take this opportunity and get out there and prove that I can win races.”
Berry is a driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has wanted to transfer to Xfinity for more than half a decade. After Chase Elliott won the 2015 Xfinity race at Richmond for JR Motorsports, Earnhardt spent some of his press conference time talking about Berry, who finished seventh in his third start of the series. Earnhardt was then looking for sponsors for Berry, but no support was found there.
Berry didn’t get his chance until 2021. JR Motorsports signed Sam Mayer to drive for the team, but he would only turn 18 after 15 races in the season. Berry, a late model star, was featured for 12 of those races. He won at Martinsville in his sixth start of the year, setting a win for short track racers across the country.
“I’m proud of my journey here,” Berry said after winning this season’s Xfinity Playoffs in Las Vegas.
“I think I would do it again, there’s no way I would change anything. But at the same time you get to that level and what you did before really doesn’t mean much. I’ve obviously been very successful and lucky enough to have had some great opportunities, but when you strap yourself into those race cars and you race, no one else out there has cars like you’ve done.
Berry finished that year with three wins and placed fourth in the series.
Now Preece gets the chance to advance his career and follow what Chastain, Berry and Majeski have done this year.
“We had to dig deep,” Preece said. “We’ve had to fight for every opportunity because we don’t necessarily have the easy way to raise the funding that’s needed to get some of these cars or some of these organizations up and running. We have to take advantage of the small chances that we get.”
Preece also wants to help draw attention to those who drive short distances. He calls it his responsibility.
“There’s absolutely a responsibility and I think I can do better and I could have done better the first time, but it’s certainly something I’m proud of,” he said.
“I’m from the base. I’m from Stafford Speedway. I’ve been through a lot of nights this year trying to win races, which we have, and that’s a little taste of what a racer, in my eyes or where I’m from, that’s what we are .