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Stewart-Haas Racing ‘leaning toward’ Ryan Preece in No. 41 car

Stewart-Haas Racing is "leaning toward" replacing Cole Custer with Ryan Preece in the No. 41 car starting next season in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Austin Konenski
NASCAR: Cup Qualifying
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR silly season has mostly concluded in the Cup Series; however, there is one major opening that is currently deemed fluid with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 41 car.

That might not be the case soon as the organization appears to be leaning in one direction.

Stewart-Haas Racing ‘leaning toward’ Ryan Preece next season

NASCAR: Truck Series Rackley Roofing 200 and Stewart-Haas Racing
Jun 24, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series driver Ryan Preece (17) celebrates as he holds the trophy with Nashville Superspeedway president Erik Moses after winning the Rackley Roofing 200 at Nashville Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Stewart-Haas Racing has seen a drama-filled silly season of changes such as Aric Almirola announcing his intentions to retire at the conclusion of the 2022 season, only to change his mind and return on a multi-year deal.

Plus, Kevin Harvick is currently not expected to return to the No. 4 car after the 2023 season as his contract ends while the team tries to influence him to return. There is one more piece to the puzzle too.

According to FOX Sports’ Bob Pockrass, Stewart-Haas Racing appears to be “leaning toward” replacing Cole Custer with Ryan Preece in the No. 41 car on a full-time basis starting next year.

Granted, the situation is fluid and can change but this might be the move for the organization. Pockrass also stated that Preece passed on other opportunities in the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series to position himself for the ride.

The Connecticut native spent the 2022 season as the reserve driver for Stewart-Haas Racing. Preece also ran select races in NASCAR’s top three levels with a win coming in the Truck Series at Nashville Superspeedway.

However, would this be the right move for Stewart-Haas Racing moving forward with its driver lineup?

Related: Kevin Harvick set to leave Stewart-Haas Racing after 2023

Evaluating a possible Cole Custer, Ryan Preece switch

NASCAR: Cup Championship
Nov 6, 2022; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Cole Custer during the Cup Championship race at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Custer has not been very impressive over his first three full-time seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series. Stewart-Haas Racing has been patient but the results have not elevated yet.

The 24-year-old driver had three top-10 finishes and a 20.6 average finishing position this year. The 2022 season was certainly better than his 2021 season, but worse than his rookie year.

Custer has seen major success in NASCAR after his incredible Xfinity Series season in 2017 which saw him win a total of seven times and came close to the championship behind Tyler Reddick.

It just has not translated over to the Cup Series yet. However, Preece’s career in NASCAR has been somewhat different. He broke onto the competitive scene with Joe Gibbs Racing during the 2017 season in the Xfinity Series and broke through with a victory at Iowa Speedway.

Then, he ran 15 races with the organization in 2018 with a victory coming at Bristol Motor Speedway. This saw him move to JTG Daugherty Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series for the 2019 season.

Preece struggled compared to his teammates over the next three seasons as Chris Buescher and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. outperformed him by over 100 points each year. It ended with JTG Daugherty getting rid of the No. 37 car after running the 2021 season without it having a charter.

Meanwhile, Custer has been in the same boat as his teammates have outperformed him every single year, including the 2020 season when he made the playoffs due to his victory at Kentucky Speedway.

So, would the decision to move on from Custer in the No. 41 car for Preece be a smart decision by Stewart-Haas Racing? It does not really make sense why they would do this on the surface.

Tony Stewart wants Preece while Gene Haas wants Custer. If Harvick is going to retire at the end of the 2023 season, it would be logical for Preece to replace him for the 2024 season.

Instead, the organization would remove a 24-year-old driver for a 32-year-old driver which, based on statistics, would not really move the needle much at all. The younger driver would obviously have more potential.

Perhaps, the organization could let Custer return to the Cup Series team at some point but why would it get rid of him and bring him back? With the possibility of Harvick and Almirola retiring in the next few years, Custer and Preece will have a shot eventually.

If the plan is to simply move on from Custer and never let him return to the Cup Series team, Stewart-Haas Racing could see him develop over the next eight years for another Ford-backed team and make them regret the decision.

It’s not a problem with Preece possibly taking the ride. The idea of possibly giving up on Custer at 24 years old is more so the problem. Stewart-Haas Racing won’t have Harvick and Almirola in two to three years.

That means there are two openings outside of Chase Briscoe if Custer doesn’t return. From an outside perspective, this could be handled in a better manner but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.