Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished 13th on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway to push his streak of non-top 10 finishes to 13 consecutive races. But with Talladega Superspeedway up next on the schedule, he knows his championship hopes are very much alive.
Both of Stenhouse’s wins this year came in May at Talladega and its sister track, Daytona International Speedway, in July. Both of those raceways require the use of a speed-choking restrictor plate that reduces speeds by nearly 30 mph for safety reasons.
He has no wins and just a pair of top-fives in the other 26 races this year.
Stenhouse is the newest driver to figure out the nuances of plate racing. Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had their runs. So did Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
The key is shaping a car that cuts through the wind and gets past NASCAR’s rigorous inspection process. After that, the only way to get up front – and stay there – is making passes in the tunnels of calmer air that trails other lead cars.
For Stenhouse, restrictor plate races were the only way he got into the playoffs. And he knows it will be the only way he stays in it. Just getting to the second round was the real challenge that few expected.
“Yeah, I love proving people wrong,” he said. “I enjoy doing that.”
Now that he got the No. 17 Ford past the first cutoff, his team can change its strategy by targeting the 188-lap main event.
“It’s good to be in the second round,” after Stenhouse survived the first playoff cut. “That was our goal when we started the playoffs, and we accomplished it and now obviously we focus on our efforts to continue to the third round of eight.”
Roush Fenway Racing has concentrated on the Alabama 500 for months. It assigned former championship crew chief Jimmy Fennig to focus solely on the Talladega car, perhaps sensing it was their only hope to stay alive in the championship picture.
“I’m definitely looking forward to going back to Talladega. Jimmy Fennig has been working for some time now on our Talladega car and been massaging it and getting it ready to go,” Stenhouse said. “He kind of takes over the whole speedway program until the week of and then our team gets it and works on it some more.
“We want to go in and win Talladega. That would be nice and solidify and make sure that we get to that next round with a win. But, if not, I think it’s a race track that we could still gain a lot of points.”
Since nobody has an abundance of power to break away in a restrictor-plate race, traffic on the 2.66-mile tri-oval often is 10-deep and three-wide where the smallest mistake generally morphs into a multi-car pileup.
While just about every other driver in Sunday’s race has finished on the end of a wrecker’s hook, Stenhouse has been able to escape all the calamity. In fact, the 30-year-old driver has finished on the lead lap in all eight of his career starts there.
By simply finishing at Talladega, Stenhouse knows he probably will separate himself from others who wind up in crashes.
“Man, I don’t know. I’d love to do it by winning Talladega, but I think, realistically, you’ve got to plan on points,” he said. “That’s our mindset for now,” he said. “That’s going to take a lot of effort. We’re not there right now.”
Time to shine
To get there, Stenhouse needs big efforts at Talladega and/or next week at Kansas Speedway. He’s ranked 12th of the 12 remaining drivers, and the playoff field will be cut to eight following the Kansas race.
Neither is his Roush Fenway Racing organization. After winning championships with Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004 the team has struggled in the last three seasons with four combined victories. Once considered the stalwart of the Ford Performance effort, the team has been in a perpetual rebuilding stage for years.
Stenhouse finally is in position to revive some of the team’s faded glory.
“No, I don’t feel pressure,” Stenhouse said. “I feel a lot of support. I think a lot of our employees are working really hard and they came in early, leaving late, making sure that everything is getting done that we’re asking of them.”
While the season-long body of work certainly isn’t at a premier level, the quirky nature of the playoffs – just be better than four other drivers in each of three rounds of eliminations – and the prospects of racing at Talladega are the loopholes that gives Stenhouse a chance.