29 races through the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is on the radar as one of the most improved drivers of the year. With victories at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona in July, the No. 17 team was guaranteed a position into the playoffs.
With a bit of luck on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Stenhouse scored just enough points to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Now would be a good time to mention that Talladega is in this next segment of the postseason.
Outside of Stenhouse’s pair of victories, it’s been a whirlwind year, though he does have a career-high seven top-10 finishes.
“The year as a whole has been up and down,” Stenhouse told Frontstretch prior to the race at Dover. “We haven’t been consistent as we’ve wanted. We started the year off pretty strong, and I feel like we fell off a little bit here and there. Then we’ll find it here and there as well. We need to get it more consistent, but we’re chasing being a top team. We want to keep pushing hard and keep working in the areas that we have to, to get our cars better driving wise and faster speed wise.
The No. 17 crew started the year of sizzling hot, posting top 10s in five of the opening 10 races. After Stenhouse’s victory at Talladega, the team didn’t have another top 10 until Michigan International Speedway (finishing eighth) and won at Daytona two races later. Those are the bright spots.
Stenhouse has wrecked out of four events, but with the win-and-you’re-in mentality, points don’t play a factor until the playoffs. But coming off a season in which the No. 17 team had six top 10s, 2017 has been a successful season for at least half of Roush Fenway Racing.
“This off-season I feel like we made a lot of improvements,” Stenhouse said. “We started the season really strong – a lot stronger than I probably thought we would. The biggest thing was we didn’t continue that growth. That’s really the bummer of our season if we look back. To see where we started and where we got left behind by a couple of teams. Trying to figure out how to not let that happen would be the key not going into next season.”
When looking at RFR as a whole, Trevor Bayne has had a tough season after getting out of the gates strong. The No. 6 team has four top 10s, two of which came in back-to-back events at Michigan and Bristol Motor Speedway, but has dropped to 21st in the standings after being as high as second. Meanwhile, Stenhouse is confident with the team going forward as long as the crew puts in the hard work.
“I think we’ve definitely turned the corner a little bit,” he mentioned. “I think we’re kind of going back around the corner a little bit, also at different points of the season. Right now, we’ve been struggling the past couple of weeks to get speed in our cars. I feel like the other playoff drivers brought their best equipment to the racetrack, and I feel like we fell a little further behind than where we thought we were.”
Over the first trio of playoff races, Stenhouse has an average finish of 19.6, earning seven stage points in the opening stage at Dover to advance into the second round of the postseason by two points over Ryan Newman. However, during the next stint of three races, there are two mile-and-a-half tracks, which is where the team has struggled in 2017.
“This season I would say we’ve been better on the short tracks really than other of the other racetracks,” Stenhouse said. “And in Roush’s history, short tracks have kind of been the struggle. I feel like we started the season really strong. I think we were a top 12 car at mile-and-a-halves and a top 10 car at short tracks. I thought we made that jump that we needed to and if we could slowly chip away at it, we would be right there. I think other teams got faster a little quicker than us.”
Stenhouse admits that, going forward, the driver needs to quit overdriving the racecar and take care of his equipment. But what’s a driver to do when they are trying to make-up for that additional speed?
“There are cars that can just get around the racetrack faster than we can,” he said. “We know a few of our issues that could probably help that, but we don’t really have the solutions to fix it, yet. That’s what we will be working on.”
Over the course of his five full seasons in the Cup Series, Stenhouse has an average finish of 16.2 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Talladega, the tracks that make up the second round of the playoffs.
Despite his success at those tracks, making it out of the opening round was the primary goal. Everything else is a bonus.
“We’re going to be excited,” he said of going to the three racetracks. “Once we made the playoffs, our goal was to make it out of the first round. It resets for the second round and I like the tracks in the second round. You can’t even guarantee a win at a place like Talladega, but it gives us a lot of hope.”
For the first time since this version of the playoffs was implemented in 2014, Talladega is not a cutoff race. In his career at the superspeedway, the No. 17 team has an average finish of 10th.
About the author
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.