Something that has consistently dumbfounded me is the amount of hate and disrespect Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gets from fans on social media. There’s constantly jokes about him wrecking and insults being thrown around. There’s even a parody account or two.
Yes, Stenhouse is an ultra-aggressive driver, and sometimes that can lead to incidents, but don’t fans want their drivers to be aggressive? What many don’t realize is that Stenhouse is precisely the character and underdog that the NASCAR garage needs, and it is shocking more fans haven’t rallied behind him. It’s a good thing JTG Daugherty Racing signed Stenhouse and continued his NASCAR Cup Series career, as NASCAR needs drivers like him around for several reasons.
Talent for Days
Despite the constant criticism, Stenhouse is actually a talented driver. But due to the lack of Cup success so far, there are many who assume otherwise.
The tune surrounding Stenhouse did change slightly on Sunday afternoon (Feb. 9) when he surprised the NASCAR world by laying down the fastest lap to win the Daytona 500 pole.
After all, just over four months ago, Stenhouse didn’t even have a ride for 2020. Chris Buescher replaced him in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 17, and it wasn’t until October that Stenhouse signed to drive JTG’s No. 47 Chevrolet.
Still, the feat shouldn’t be seen as a major shock. After all, JTG Daugherty uses Hendrick Motorsports engines, winner of the previous five Daytona 500 poles. But it shouldn’t be a shock if Stenhouse goes on to dominate the Daytona 500 and win.
Both of Stenhouse’s NASCAR Cup Series wins have occurred on superspeedways. And even more impressive, since 1988 when NASCAR started restricting the motors on superspeedways, Stenhouse has the third best average finish. The only two guys ahead of him have the last name Earnhardt — that’s not bad company.
But Stenhouse isn’t just a superspeedway talent. He can be good at most tracks if given the equipment to do so. He has four career top fives at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that is one of the ultimate tests of talent. And his lone top five last year was in the Coca-Cola 600, arguably the most challenging race among 1.5-mile tracks. Plus, a driver doesn’t win back-to-back Xfinity Series titles without talent, even if it isn’t the Cup Series.
The problem with Stenhouse is he moved into Roush’s Cup program at the worst time possible. The team had some of its most awful years while he drove there. Why else did Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards flee to Joe Gibbs Racing? The cars got so bad that it made Greg Biffle look bad in his final year in Cup.
Last year, Roush saw a slight uptick with the No. 6 outperforming Stenhouse but the team was putting all of its emphasis on the newcomer Ryan Newman. Stenhouse needed a change of scenery, and JTG could give him what he needs to succeed.
Underdog Team with Underrated Driver
The combination of Stenhouse and JTG has only accumulated three Cup wins total, but both have the potential to come out of nowhere and be competitive.
Last year, Buescher, driving for JTG, improved his average finishing position by over three positions and doubled his top 10s from the year before, so the team seems to be trending in the right direction even if it is still a ways from being a weekly contending team.
So the pairing of JTG with Stenhouse combines an underdog team and an underrated driver — a combo that fans would love in most situations. And if the No. 47 should find victory lane at some point, it likely would be a popular win among fans due to Stenhouse overcoming being ousted by Roush.
Plus, at this point, most fans probably would cheer for anyone not driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car to win after the team won more races than they lost in 2019. With Tad and Jodi Geschickter being in the sport for so long, a win by that team would be highly popular.
NASCAR has many underdogs, but how many are going to actually make life hard for the leaders when given the opportunity? When Stenhouse has a car good enough to keep up with the frontrunners, he can give them fits instead of being cautious and giving plenty of room. Isn’t that what racing is all about? Who wants to watch 40 drivers be nice to each other? Which leads to the next point.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Stenhouse has ruffled plenty of feathers with his aggression over the years, but one of the key rivalries he’s created is with defending Cup champion Kyle Busch. It’s no secret that Busch loves to play up the heel angle, reveling in the loud fan boos that come in driver introductions. Every good villain needs a hero, and Stenhouse could play that role should he get to a point where he is consistently racing with the two-time champion.
In spring 2017 at Martinsville Speedway, Stenhouse prformed a bump-and-run on Busch to get back on the lead lap at the end of a stage, costing Busch the stage win.
Last year at the Coca-Cola 600, Stenhouse was mad at the way Busch was racing him and dove deep into a corner to try to dump Busch, but came just shy of the No. 18’s bumper.
I was looking through last year’s content, and with @StenhouseJr on the Daytona 500 pole, it seemed appropriate to share this great response.
— Michael Massie (@m_massie22) February 11, 2020
Those two incidents barely scratch the surface of the run-ins between the two, which points to the fact that it is one of the biggest rivalries in the series right now despite the fact that it’s barely talked about during broadcasts.
Stenhouse doesn’t come across the same way as a lot of the vanilla drivers fans and media have complained about in recent years. Like many other drivers with dirt backgrounds, Stenhouse is not afraid to speak his mind in interviews, sometimes coming off as blunt. He’s a Mississippi boy true to the southern roots of the sport, and he seems like someone most of the fans could have a beer and some great conversations with.
More so than that, Stenhouse is a throwback to the good old days. When he won his first Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in 2017, his dad was briefly held up by track security for trying to climb the backstretch catchfence. That sounds like something straight out of the Junior Johnson era.
And have you seen the mullet he’s been rocking during Speedweeks? That just screams personality.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 10, 2020
A Man Without a Sponsor
Stenhouse is in the Cup Series because of his talent, and his talent alone. His caught Jack Roush’s eye, leading NASCAR Hall of Famer to put Stenhouse in his Xfinity car. Roush even footed the bill himself to race Stenhouse at times when there weren’t any sponsors on the hood.
Since then, Stenhouse’s talent has carried him to the Cup Series. The sponsor’s that he had in Roush’s No. 17 were sponsors that The Cat in the Hat pulled together. The same deal applies at JTG, which has kept Kroger on the hood of the No. 47 no matter who was driving.
Stenhouse has been a good enough driver to inspire owners to want him and convince their sponsors to take a chance on him. He hasn’t brought any money with him to any team. This is a rarity in an era of ride buying and sponsorship controlling team lineups and something of which NASCAR needs more.
Is Stenhouse an elite driver? Probably not. But he still deserves to be there. His presence helps greatly in keeping NASCAR from being boring like it was in the sponsor-friendly, PC-centered, vanilla late-2000s.
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.