NEWTON, Iowa - Berlin native Ryan Preece had waited his whole career for a chance to race in a car as strong as the No. 20 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Preece then went out and proved what he could do with top-notch equipment.
The 26-year-old Preece survived a green-white-checkered finish to win the NASCAR Xfinity race Saturday at Iowa Speedway for his first career victory.
Preece, running the second of a two-race deal with the powerhouse JGR team, started from the pole and held off Kyle Benjamin on three restarts in the final 17 laps.
Preece, the Connecticut driver who is a regular in the lower-division NASCAR Whelen Modified series, crossed the start-finish line less than a car-length ahead of Benjamin.
“To be honest with you, I believed in myself enough to do it,” Preece said of using his Xfinity budget for just two races. “It is very risky. I had multiple people in the business tell me that it was a little (riskier) than they would do.”
The 19-year-old Benjamin was a career-best second, followed by Brian Scott, Brennan Poole and rookie Cole Custer. William Byron, who began a streak of three wins in five races at Iowa last month, finished ninth and Justin Allgaier was 20th after leading 106 laps.
Preece finished 17th in the series a year ago, with only one top-10 in 33 starts.
For this season, Preece went back to the Modified series - where he won a title four years ago - while striking a deal with JGR to run twice in one of the best cars in the series.
Preece was second to Cup star Kyle Busch in New Hampshire in his first shot with the No. 20 car.
On Saturday, he held off Benjamin to make his season-long gamble pay off.
“I knew what I felt like I had to do to get attention, to make noise, and I felt like these two races were my shot,” Preece said.
It was an encouraging finish for Benjamin, who started on the front row for the fourth time in as many races but finished above 16th for the first time.
“I’m really happy to finish second - I really needed that,” Benjamin said. “But to be as close as we were to winning, it kind of hurts. It makes you think about what you could have done better.
It was another gamble, by Allgaier earlier in the race, which helped put Preece and Benjamin in position for their thrilling finish.
Allgaier won the second stage and was leading when he decided to stay out on a caution about 75 laps from the finish.
The rest of the contenders went in for fresh tires and Allgaier’s No. 7 car, on old tires, quickly fell back while Preece grabbed the lead.
The hope for Allgaier was that a caution would allow him to put on a new set of tires, and thus have the advantage for the finish.
The yellow flag came too late though, as Allgaier was forced to pit for fuel just a few laps before Sam Hornish Jr. drew a caution.
Preece, who spent much of the race battling Allgaier for first, led 141 laps.