BRISTOL, Tenn. — All it took for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to breathe some life into his NASCAR Cup Series season was a return to the type of racing that his career was built on at an early age.
Stenhouse, who counts racing with the World of Outlaws, USAC, ASCS and the All Star Circuit of Champions among his early grassroots exploits, snagged a runner-up finish during Monday’s rain-postponed Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The Olive Branch, Miss., native stayed glued to the bottom during an overtime restart in the Food City Dirt Race, charging from fourth at the green flag to second as Denny Hamlin made a failed attempt at passing for the lead on the outside and Martin Truex Jr. dropped back with a flat tire.
From there, Stenhouse tried to get to leader Joey Logano’s rear bumper on the final lap, but couldn’t make up enough ground and settled for second. He was .554 seconds short at the checkered flag.
Stenhouse is one of three drivers, alongside Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, to have finished inside the top 20 in all seven NASCAR Cup Series races this year.
However, a second-place effort was easily his high-water mark so far and came as a welcomed boost to his early-season playoff hopes.
“Our Kroger Camaro was really good on the long run; we just needed a little bit more NOS Energy Drink for the restarts,” tipped Stenhouse, who rose three spots to 14th in the driver standings. “I just couldn’t get going; couldn’t get the turn in the race car that we needed. But we made a ton of adjustments and we kind of went back and forth overnight of what we were going to do. (Kyle) Larson and I came out and hung with the track crew. Steve Swift and the boys did a great job of getting this thing raceable today with all the rain and all the challenges that they had. Man, we had a blast.
“At the start of the race, I was terrible with the green race track and a little bit of moisture in it. But as it blew off, we got back to where we were in practice and felt really good with it,” Stenhouse added. “It’s a good way to go into the off week.”
While conditions weren’t always ideal for the first NASCAR Cup Series dirt race in more than five decades, Stenhouse noted he was pleased with the effort put in by Speedway Motorsports’ Steve Swift and the rest of the track preparation crew to give the drivers as raceable a surface as possible.
“Steve and the boys did a great job. I watched every race last week [during the Bristol Dirt Nationals]. They did a great job with all the race cars on the race track, knowing they had to prep the track a little bit different for our race cars,” Stenhouse explained. “You can’t have it wet with the cars overheating and our grill screens, windshields, and things like that. They prepped the track to the best of their ability. All the rain didn’t help. They reacted, did stuff as best they could. I think they did a great job.
“Things may have got a little bit behind [in the middle of the race]. When we started running single file, all the dust just sat in that second lane. I was one advocating for single-file restarts,” he added. “I felt like NASCAR did a great job adapting to that because, like Steve O’Donnell said, that’s things that you see in dirt racing when track conditions just change and kind of are out of your control at that point. But I think it made the racing better and it was a lot better there at the end.
“Hats off to everybody at NASCAR and everybody on the track crew for the job they did for this race.”
With a top-10 finish in his back pocket, Stenhouse is looking forward to continuing his JTG Daugherty Racing team’s positive momentum when the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action under the lights at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on April 10.
The Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 will mark Stenhouse’s 300th Cup Series start. He’ll be looking for his third top-10 at the half-mile paper clip and first there since October of 2017.
“We’ve really focused on just being more consistent week in and week out. We had some really high moments last year and some really low moments. Now, we’re just trying to even things out, take the speed of our race cars and make sure we execute when we’re at the race track,” explained Stenhouse. “It’s just [about] being prepared. That starts with me and the things I do behind the wheel, the things I do off the race track preparing, going into the weekend, and just getting that mindset going into each race that it’s one race at a time.
“We didn’t get off to the hottest start. We struggled a little bit at the [Daytona] 500 and had a couple mistakes that cost us at the road course. Really, other than that, we’ve stuck to our game plan and done everything that we’ve wanted to accomplish every week,” he continued. “Coming into the Bristol dirt event, I felt like I was going to be comfortable on the race track. But I felt like these are the best drivers out there and they were going to adapt, their teams were going to adapt, and they were going to bring good race cars as well. I didn’t want to put too much emphasis on, ‘Hey, we have to go win.’
“We methodically worked our way throughout the race on getting our race car better, not freaking out early in the race, knowing that the track conditions were going to change and probably that they would come around for the balance of our race car. We did that. Got our first top five of the year and now it’s trying to keep that momentum going into an off weekend so we start fresh when we get going again.”