The future looked bright for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. a few years ago. After all, he won back-to-back NASCAR XFINITY titles in 2011 and 2012 and followed that with a Cup Series rookie of the year title in 2013.
Unfortunately for Stenhouse the next two years were sideways rather than improvements over that freshman campaign. That said, while it seems as though the Roush Fenway Racing camp has struggled for several years as a whole, this season was actually a strong effort for Stenhouse and unquestionably his best of his four-year Cup career.
For the second time in his career, Stenhouse came up one position short of his first Cup win with his another runner-up at Bristol Motor Speedway. The difference this season was it was just one of four top-5 runs. The previous three years Stenhouse had only one top 5 in each season. With his strong efforts at Auto Club Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, he more than doubled his career total of top-5 finishes.
Stenhouse cut his racing teeth on dirt short tracks around the South and Midwest. He had success in many open wheel cars that thrived on control with the throttle. Of all of the tracks where the Cup Series runs, none mimics those races more than Bristol. With the new racing surface and the tire that Goodyear brought, Stenhouse was able to search and find lines that worked for him. The engineering dependency of cars in the Cup Series is what is hampering RFR as a whole at this point, but Bristol is one of the least dependent tracks on the circuit. In the end, that is what helped give Stenhouse the best result of his season.
Other stats: Stenhouse’s average starting position was 17.4, his best of his career, and his average finish was only slightly worse at 19.6. He came home 21st in points. He led six laps and finished on the lead lap 23 times.
That 21st-place points finish was due in large part to five DNFs, which were all the result of crashes — many of which saw him finish in the last few positions in the running order. Those finishes truly hampered his efforts at a top-15 finish in points and a potential Chase berth.
Though not specifically a NASCAR-related occurrence, the racing world was rocked to its foundation this year with the loss of Bryan Clauson. The loss was exceptionally hard on drivers who were close to the open wheel standout. Stenhouse was one of Clauson’s closest friends and continues to honor him in various ways. One of the most touching moments of the year was when Stenhouse drove a special Clauson paint scheme for Clauson’s team in the Jason Leffler Memorial race in October. While he only managed a 20th-place finish, it was poignantly moving to have the special scheme for the driver who won the race the previous year, honoring a driver who passed in a race memorializing a driver who passed.
The biggest challenge for Stenhouse in 2016 — as well as for the Roush driver going forward — is the struggles of his whole organization. Roush Fenway has been behind for several years. With the departure of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, the team has struggled to score a win and has truly seemed lacking in direction. For 2017, the elder statesman of RFR has packed his bags and moved on. With the departure of Greg Biffle, Stenhouse is now the senior driver at RFR. The organization has also dropped the No. 16 from its stable, so it will be focused on two cars for 2017.
That renewed focus could be what the company needs to return to the front of the pack, but it could also hamper it as it continues to try to dig out from its hole. The handful of strong finishes for Stenhouse and the more focused efforts by the organization could yield further success next season.
2017 will be a year where Stenhouse can prove he belongs in the Cup Series or he can prove to be an also-ran. Much of that will depend on the rebound of his organization, but part of it will also depend on the driver showcasing his talent that was originally displayed in championship seasons in the XFINITY Series.
If Stenhouse — and teammate Trevor Bayne, for that matter — finally rekindle some of their past successes, that’s what could bring both them and their team back to prominence.