To call them underdogs would be a disservice, so a better way to describe them is to say they have been overlooked.
Ross Chastain (cup), Josh Berry (Xfinity) and Ty Majeski (Trucks) all faced long obstacles in their careers. All raced for a championship this year. While none won a title, they provide hope for grassroots racers and mid-pack drivers that there is a chance to contend 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 seasoncaps a year that has seen overlooked drivers demand attention with their performance on the track.
Preece, who came from the modified ranks, joins that group in his return to the Cup.
“This is a second chance for me, but they’re few and far between,” he told reporters Wednesday.
After running a full season in 2016 with a low-budget Xfinity Series team, Preece took what funding he had and parlayed it into a four-race showcase with Joe Gibbs Racing. He figured it was better to get attention for running at the front than running at all. He won at Iowa in his second start that year.
That led to a 15-race run in the Xfinity Series with JGR in 2018 and a full-time Cup ride the following year with JTG Daugherty Racing. He ran three seasons with JTG, including the final year without a charter for the team, before parting ways.
Stewart-Haas Racing signed him to do simulator work and be a reserve driver this past season. He ran two Cup, three Xfinity and 10 Truck races this year, winning once in Trucks.
Co-owner Tony Stewart wanted Preece with SHR’s Cup program for 2023. Preece will have a second chance to show that he can have the success in Cup that he’s had in other series throughout NASCAR.
Chastain and Majeski know about second chances.
Chastain labored for nearly four Xfinity seasons with underfunded rides before getting his break in 2018 in a three-race deal with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity program.
Chastain won in his second start with the team, taking the checkered flag at Las Vegas. He was signed to join Ganassi’s program full-time before the FBI raided the headquarters of his sponsor and the CEO’s home in December 2018. Chastain’s funding was gone and so was his team.
He admits, for a while, he thought he was “done racing in NASCAR.”
“In my head, once that (ride) was gone, I just never thought I’d have another opportunity like that, and I wasn’t mentally ready to go back and run scuffed tires (for underfunded teams),” he said before the playoffs. “Ultimately, I decided to go back and run scuffed tires.”
He ran for a low-budget Xfinity and Cup team and also for a winning Truck team that season. It led him to Ganassi’s Cup ride in 2021. He moved over to Trackhouse Racing after the team purchased Ganassi’s assets. Chastain won two Cup races and finished second in the series this year.
Majeski, a Wisconsin driver who came from the Super Late Model ranks, was a part of the doomed No. 60 Xfinity Series ride at Roush Fenway Racing in 2018, sharing the car with Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe. Majeski failed to finish four of his first eight races because of crashes. While his performance improved in his final races, it wasn’t enough to keep him in the series.
He went back to short track racing, running Super Late Models.
“My short track success has always sort of kept me … relevant,” said Majeski, a two-time Slinger Nationals champion and the 2020 Snowball Derby winner. “It’s been able to keep creating some opportunities for me.”
He later worked as an engineer at ThorSport Racing and didn’t get a full-time NASCAR ride until this past year in the Trucks with ThorSport. He finished with two wins and placed fourth in the series standings.
“It has been a long road and, naturally, you start to doubt yourself after you’re not able to succeed at this level,” Majeski said. “Just happy that I’ve been able to make the most of this opportunity and to go out and prove I can win races.”
Berry has been a driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has wanted to move into Xfinity for more than half a decade. After Chase Elliott won the 2015 Xfinity race at Richmond for JR Motorsports, Earnhardt spent part of his time in the press conference talking about Berry, who placed seventh in just his third series start. Earnhardt sought sponsors then for Berry but there backing was not found.
It wasn’t until 2021 that Berry got his chance. JR Motorsports signed Sam Mayer to drive for the team but he would not turn 18 until 15 races into the season. Berry, a late model star, was scheduled for 12 of those races. He won at Martinsville in his sixth start that year, scoring a win for short track racers across the country.
“I’m proud of my journey to get here,” Berry said later his win at Las Vegas in the Xfinity playoffs this season.
“I believe I would do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a single thing no matter what. But at the same time you get to this level and what you’ve done before really doesn’t mean a whole lot. I’ve obviously been really successful and fortunate to have some great opportunities, but when you strap into those race cars and go racing, nobody else out there cars what you did.”
Berry finished this year with three wins and placed fourth in the series.
Now, it is Preece who gets a chance to further his career and follow in what Chastain, Berry and Majeski did this year.
“We’ve had to dig deep,” Preece said. “We’ve had to fight for every opportunity because we don’t necessarily have the easy path of having the funding that it takes to make some of these cars or some of these organizations run. The little opportunities that we do get we have to take advantage of them.”
Preece also wants to help those racing at short tracks gain attention. He calls it his responsibility.
“There’s absolutely a responsibility to it, and that’s something that I think I can do a better job at and I could have done a better job at it the first time, but it’s certainly something that I carry proudly,” he said.
“I’m from the grassroots. I’m from Stafford Speedway. This year, I’ve pulled plenty of all-nighters working to try and win races, which we did, and that’s a small glimpse of what a racer, in my eyes anyways or where I’m from, is what we are.”