By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Roush Fenway Racing has taken a beating over the last few seasons due to their collective horrible production on the racetrack, but one of their drivers — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — is quietly putting together the best start to a season of his career.
Stenhouse had a 22nd place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, which wasn’t too impressive, but at the 1.5-mile race tracks, which make up the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, Stenhouse has looked pretty good so far.
Last week in Atlanta, Stenhouse started fifth, and brought home his No. 17 Ford Fusion in the 10th position.
This week, Stenhouse didn’t nab a top-10 finish, but he may have shown a more important ability — rebounding from penalties.
Stenhouse rolled off the grid from the 16th-position in the Kobalt 400 and before the competition caution came out on lap 31, he had worked his way to 14th. Throughout the race, Stenhouse was patient, and crew chief Nick Sandler kept turning the wrenches in a positive direction.
It looked like Stenhouse had a top-10 racecar under him, but on a sequence of green flag pit stops with around 100 laps to go, Stenhouse was busted for speeding on pit road. Stenhouse would serve a pass through penalty, and as a result he would fall one lap down to 26th position. It would have been easy to phone it in from there, but the No. 17 team kept swinging.
“I put my guys behind when I sped on pit road with only 100 to go,” Stenhouse admitted after the race. “That was tough to battle back from and Nick made a great pit call and took the wave around and we ended up catching a caution and we fought back really hard there.”
Stenhouse and his team opted for that wave around during a lap 177 debris caution. Stenhouse would then work his way to 20th when the caution came out again on lap 198 for an incident involving Kyle Larson and A.J. Allmendinger. Under that caution Stenhouse would be able to get fresh tires, and would be back on sync with the rest of the field.
Stenhouse continued climbing through the field, and on lap 225 he skillfully missed a multi-car melee which collected Matt Kenseth, Chase Elliott and a host of others. When the race went back to green, Stenhouse made it into the 12th position, where he would remain the rest of the race.
“I thought we were a 10-12th-place car all day so to come home 12th after a mistake by me, I am really happy with that,” Stenhouse said after the race. “We have to make sure we don’t make those mistakes so we have shots at top-five finishes. If not for that mistake we could have been really good there at the end. All in all, I am really happy.”
It wasn’t easy, but the No. 17 team overcame a ton of adversity ton get another solid finish. As a result, Stenhouse now finds himself 11th in the championship standings heading into Phoenix. This matches Stenhouse’s best points rank after three races (he was also 11th after the third race of 2013), but with more experience and better performance from the Roush Fenway Racing shop this season, perhaps Stenhouse can parlay his current momentum into a Chase berth later this season.
Image: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images