NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings No. 25: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

In his ninth season of full-time NASCAR Cup Series action, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will return to the seat of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet for the second straight season. While the team has not made many announcements this offseason, the general understanding is that Stenhouse’s contract he signed prior to last year was a multi-season deal.

It is also expected that Ryan Preece will return as Stenhouse’s teammate in the organization. Stenhouse has won two Cup races before, both in 2017 for his former team, Roush Fenway Racing, coming at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway.

Prior to moving up to the Cup Series, Stenhouse won eight races en route to two straight NASCAR Xfinity Series championships in 2011-12. His background is that of a dirt sprint car driver, having just finished seventh out of hundreds of drivers that entered at the Chili Bowl Nationals earlier this month.

A Look Back

The 2020 Speedweeks seem like an eternity ago, but it is still notable that the No. 47 Chevrolet was considered easily the fastest car that week in Daytona Beach. Stenhouse was the polesitter before an early accident in the 500 relegated him to 20th in the Great American Race.

Stenhouse’s first season with JTG Daugherty was ultimately a disappointment due to a run of bad luck that infected the organization as a whole over the summer. 2020 was Stenhouse’s worst season since 2015 when it came to final points ranking, average finish and number of lead-lap finishes. The Mississippi native’s eight DNFs were also a career high, tying for second worst on the circuit with Preece.

Outside of the Daytona 500 pole, Stenhouse’s season highlights included a third at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, an impressive fourth at Charlotte Motor Speedway with no strategy assistance and a runner-up at Talladega Superspeedway. Outside of those three races and a 10th at the first race at Dover International Speedway, Stenhouse failed to record another top-10 finish.

Promising Venues

The new venues presented in 2021 are a bit of a mixed bag for Stenhouse. On one hand, the sprint car driver should be able to adapt very well to the brand new dirt race on the Cup circuit. On the other hand, said race will happen at Bristol Motor Speedway, which means he loses a race on concrete there. BMS has usually been Stenhouse’s best non-superspeedway race, so it’s addition by subtraction.

Stenhouse is fairly medicore on road courses, of which there will be seven total planned for 2021. If there were no stages, I’d be interested in seeing what crew chief Brian Pattie would cook-up strategy-wise. But with stages, everybody has to basically stay on the exact same strategy in those types of races.

Still, there seems to be a more solid foundation that was built under the No. 47 team for this year. Stenhouse should be more comfortable with this team after a year, especially considering the pure chaos everybody in the garage had to endure in 2020. Hendrick Motorsports’ engine department should also take a step up this season with its new partnership with Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines, which powers the other half of Chevrolet’s Cup Series lineup.

Crew chief Brian Pattie is one of the few people on a pit box in the bottom half of the garage who really seems to understand how this playoff system works. Finishing 20th every week just won’t get a team in the playoffs, and Pattie’s big swings at race strategy may prove costly, but the potential upside of winning a race would get the team a coveted playoff spot. He understands that this team isn’t going to consistently contend for race victories every single week and that hitting one home run can change the outlook of an entire season for this race team.

2021 Scenarios

Stenhouse’s potential in 2021 is all over the place. He could have 10 DNF finishes and finish 31st in points, or he could theoretically make it to the Round of 8 after a Talladega win in the Round of 12.

The two-time Xfinity champion is perhaps the most consistently inconsistent driver in the garage. Some weeks, he can hang in the top 15 and really put out a solid performance. Some weeks, he crashes on lap one while having a brain fart (see Darlington Raceway, May 2020).

A couple of years ago, I wrote the final season review for Paul Menard, and it’s remarkable just how dissimilar these two are. Menard was a straight line, somebody who isn’t going to wreck and just brings home a top-half-of-the-field finish in most weeks. Stenhouse, on the other hand, is a zig-zag.

A second season with this team should stabilize Stenhouse, at least a little bit. But he never really could do that at Roush, and it’s probably a big reason he’s no longer with that team. His peaks are high, but his valleys are low.

Outlook

Expect at least some level of the same in 2021, but if just one of those peaks can be wins, a playoff run may be a possibility with how the first two rounds are laid out.

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