Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had never won a race, had never qualified for the playoffs and had never led more than 35 laps in NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series racing until this year.
After four full seasons, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, who captured consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series titles before moving to Cup full-time in 2013, proved his win at Talladega Superspeedway was no fluke. He won seven races later at Daytona, too.
Yes, there have been times when Stenhouse has felt a co-pilot alongside him — the memory of Bryan Clauson.
Hours before last year’s Cup race at The Glen, Stenhouse, received the news of Clauson’s injuries from long-time friend and current Cup car chief Mike Kelley. They were watching the Belleville Midget Nationals the night before when Clauson wrecked.
“I can remember Mike coming over to the bus on Sunday morning,” Stenhouse said. “We were hugging it out and crying. It was crazy.”
Clauson, 27, succumbed to his injuries the next day. The following week — a rare off-week for NASCAR’s Cup Series — Stenhouse flew to Knoxville, Iowa, to be with the Clausons. The racing community held an auction for the family, and Stenhouse paced the field in Clauson’s No. 17w on qualifying night for the Knoxville Nationals, followed the pace truck into the infield where he “Parked It” in Victory Lane one last time for his friend.
Feeling "BC" in the building
Stenhouse then teamed up with the newly formed Clauson-Marshall Racing to run the Chili Bowl Nationals in January. Clauson, who won the 2014 Chili Bowl, had a bigger-than-life presence at quarter-mile dirt track nestled inside the Tulsa Expo Center. Although Clauson wasn’t physically in the building, “BC” was everywhere.
“We saw it right at the Chili Bowl in January with Tyler (Courtney) winning the prelim night on Tuesday, how many cars we had in the A-Main and how the cars ran,” Stenhouse said. “I think you feel his presence for sure. I definitely think he’s here, he’s helping us out. And I definitely thought about it, especially after the win at Talladega,”
In his 158th-career Cup start, Stenhouse finally broke through with his first win.
“Man, I’m just glad we finally parked it for my buddy Bryan Clauson,” Stenhouse said in Victory Lane. “He was with us on that last lap.”
Despite Stenhouse’s success this season in NASCAR, Clauson’s passing has left a void in his life. The friends had plans to start their own World of Outlaws team in 2017. Stenhouse stays in touch with the family, particularly Bryan’s father, Tim Clauson, every week just to touch base, ask how the midget team is performing. It’s helped to share the loss.
“For me, hell, we’ve been so busy that at times I feel like the last year has gone fast and other times it’s moved real so,” Stenhouse said. “We pulled in here (Friday) night and we’re watching racing and (Kyle) Larson and I were talking about it. I said, ‘Man, it seems like the time has gone by so fast but for Tim and everybody that is together all the time, it’s probably gone by really slow.
“They’re at Belleville (Kansas) racing this weekend. I talked to Tim the other day, just tried to give him some encouragement for this weekend because it will be a tough weekend over there, for sure. It’s sucked not being able to hang out with and watch him race.
“He always uplifted everyone he was around. But us, friends and family have embraced the Driven2Save Lives campaign, really embraced the family — Tim, Diana (Clauson’s mother), Taylor (sister), Lauren (fiancee) — and just made sure that they know we’re thinking of them and Bryan all at the same time. I feel like it’s brought us all closer.”
Clauson's legacy goes beyond his racing achievements
Clauson was magical behind the wheel. He won 112-career USAC victories and was en route of “Chasing 200” races when the fatal wreck occurred 117 events in. But the one move that impressed Stenhouse the most was Clauson signing up as an organ donor. While there was the immediate result from Clauson’s organs living on through five recipients, partnering with the Driven2SaveLives crusade — part of the Donate Life Registry — will ultimately be Bryan’s legacy.
“The cool part is, the Driven2SaveLives has really grown a lot,” Stenhouse said. “Before this, I had no idea about organ donation or what it entailed or how many people you could help from that. Now that all this has happened, I feel like this is one of their bigger years of getting people to sign up. That’s really the whole key to their program is just getting people to sign up so you can get the 120,000 people that sign up for organ donation off of the list.”
More than 6,000 people have registered at driven2savelives.org since Clauson’s passing.
“He built a racing resume that for some people would take a whole lifetime to build,” Stenhouse added. “He took care of that pretty quick. I wish he had more time over here (NASCAR). I think he would have excelled over here as well or IndyCar or whatever he chose to do after sprint cars. We were really looking forward to running the Outlaw deal together this year. He could have set records over there before his career was over.
“But the Driver2SaveLives campaign, they’ve done a good job with that. Taylor, his sister, is working over there and doing a really good job. I went over there, at Indy, and spoke to a huge group. What he’s done, the organ donation, a lot of people will benefit from what Bryan has done.”