After finishing 25th at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is hoping the only place the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford can go is forward.
Of the 16 drivers in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs, Stenhouse finds himself in the cellar following several miscues in his post-season debut.
Mistake-filled playoff opener
Stenhouse hopes his luck turns around at New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend.
“It’s the worst Playoff race I’ve ever had,” Stenhouse said. “Actually, it was only the first Playoff race I ever had (laughter), but it did not go according to plan. Luckily, with the way the wins and the bonus points that we got, we’re still right there and still have a really good shot at it. For as bad as it went, I think we got out pretty lucky. We had an ill-driving Fastenal Ford all weekend last weekend and really couldn’t get a handle on it and then compounded by some mistakes that I made throughout the race.
“That was a bummer, but New Hampshire is a track that I feel like we run decent at. We got Fifth Third back on the car this weekend and I spent some time with them this week and they’re pumped up that we’re running it here at New Hampshire. We had a decent race last time we were here and I feel like over my race here we’ve had some fast cars, so I look forward to the strategy and things that we can play come Sunday. First off, we’ve got to get driving good throughout the weekend, but it makes New Hampshire and Dover very, very important.”
Stenhouse has two top 10 finishes at the Magic Mile and one at Dover Downs. He’s currently 14th in the standings, four points behind the cut-off — 12th-place Austin Dillon. Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman find themselves in a similar position with two races remaining in the round. Stenhouse says he’ll be cognizant of where those drivers will be running come Sunday.
“Last week, it was really an open book and we really kind of just went for it and never really focused on certain cars,” Stenhouse said. “We knew in the back of our heads which cars that we were gonna end up racing. I mean, it’s not rocket science that you can tell which cars you’re gonna end up racing for that final cutoff spot.
“I think for my crew chief throughout the race, whether you stay out if a late caution comes in a stage and some cars pit to set themselves up for the next stage, or stay out to win that stage or get points, I think you can almost do the opposite and work strategy throughout the whole race based off of where those cars are running.”
Although the news of RFR changing pit crews prior to the playoffs, Stenhouse had the No. 6 team service his car starting last weekend at Chicagoland. However, the news was overshadowed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s swap of the Nos. 18 and 19 pit crews — which ultimately bit Kyle Busch on Lap 96 when his gasman stepped into the pit stall too soon.
Stenhouse is optimistic that given the opportunity to put his new pit crew to good use, that the team will come through for him.
“For me, it was a bummer that we got in the fence early and then I made a commitment cone violation,” Stenhouse said of last Sunday’s race. “So we didn’t really get to use our pit crew like I really wanted, but they were smooth.
“I think they worked well together. They learned me coming in the pit box and really had no issues there, so I feel really good about them.”
Just 12 points separate the bottom six drivers. With two wins to his credit earlier this season, Stenhouse doesn’t feel like the team is in dire straights yet.
“We keep our head up because we’re only four points out,” Stenhouse said. “So I think that’s the key message around the shop this week was we had, by far, the worst race we could have ever thought of having and we’re still close. I think that is the key.”