By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
No matter who your favorite driver is, you had to be cheering on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Sunday afternoon’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s been a trying couple of weeks to say the least for Stenhouse, who is one of the many friends and family members grieving the loss of race car driver, Bryan Clauson.
Stenhouse, who is a local dirt-tracker at heart, had become close friends with the former NASCAR driver turned USAC sprint car ace. Two weeks ago, Clauson sustained fatal injuries while leading a race — one of 200 he was scheduled to race in over a 12-month span — in Kansas.
“I’m telling you that night watching the race from Belleville as soon as it happened I texted our agent that he needed to figure some things out before anything was announced. I watched it. The ambulances hadn’t even got there and I went ahead and told him that he needed to figure out a way to get to Kansas because I just had a feeling that it wasn’t good,” Stenhouse recalled. “So it started Saturday night and went through obviously a rollercoaster that whole night. I was getting updated throughout the night. I was up until about that morning talking to him and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s definitely been tough, but I think going to Knoxville and being with his family, being with his fiancé, and being with friends that we all had a great time together talking about it, talking through things and talking about all the good things that Bryan did and his organ donation really helped a lot of us really feel comforted with what he was still doing after the fact.”
In the wake of the tragic loss of his friend, Stenhouse and his primary sponsor — Fastenal — teamed up to wrap the No. 17 Ford Fusion in Clauson’s old paint scheme from his NASCAR days to honor the fallen driver. Stenhouse started the soggy weekend from the 25th spot. And early on in the 500-lap race that was contested over two days due to rain delays, things didn’t look good for Stenhouse.
Battling a car which had no grip, and was snappy loose when riding through the rosin soaked bottom lane, Stenhouse found himself down a couple of laps early in the event.
“It was tough,” Stenhouse said after the race. “We didn’t have the car exactly where we needed to be to start the race. We went two laps down and wasn’t real sure we were ever gonna be able to get back on the lead lap.”
While crew chief Nick Sandler continued to try to dial the car in, Stenhouse looked to be heading to a disappointing finish as he still two laps down in the 27th position at the halfway point of the race. But they kept fighting and eventually Sandler did find some speed with his adjustments.
“Nick made a lot of great changes to get our car better and that was really the thing that turned us around was the good adjustments on pit road, and we made a lot of them,” Stenhouse explained.
Stenhouse’s fortunes would really begin to change when a caution came out at lap 308. Under this yellow, Stenhouse opted to take a wave around to get one of his two laps back. When the green flag came back out, Stenhouse worked his way into the lucky dog position. Luckily for Stenhouse, the yellow flag was displayed again at lap 358. This put Stenhouse back on the lead lap, and with a car that was finally competitive the rally was on.
By lap 375 Stenhouse moved inside the top-15, 25 laps later he was solidly inside the top-10.
Over the last 100 laps of the race, Stenhouse methodically worked his way through the field. By the final caution period of the night, which came out for rain on lap 434, Stenhouse was up to the sixth position. But once the track was dried up and ready to go for the finish, Stenhouse would continue rolling toward the front.
In the closing laps of the race, Stenhouse worked his way up to the second position, and he had a shot at achieving the ultimate tribute to his fallen friend. However down the stretch Kevin Harvick was just a little too strong as he held on for the win.
Had a caution come out over the final 51-lap stretch, Stenhouse believes he could have given Harvick a run for the win.
“I felt we were matching him in lap times lap for lap,” said Stenhouse. “I’d definitely have given it all I had if we would have had a restart there. Like I said the last time in here, a restart on the front row here at Bristol if you don’t give it all you’ve got and move him out of the way, whatever you need to do, you don’t really want it bad enough. We would have given it all we got and I thought we had a car that was capable of doing that. Before we put tires on when him and the 22 were battling I thought we were faster than they were lap for lap, so I definitely think we would have had a shot at it.”
Even though he didn’t get his first-career Sprint Cup win, Stenhouse ended the day happy with his finish. He just wishes he could have been one spot higher for his friend.
“I really wanted to park it in victory lane for Bryan and his family, but we just came up one spot short,” said Stenhouse. “I thought we were matching the 4 car lap for lap there at the end, but starting sixth he kind of stretched it out on me and I wasn’t able to really make a run at it. I’m really happy with how we ended the day. It was a tough weekend.”
Considering how far down Stenhouse was in the second half of the event, he made an incredible recovery to score an emotional second-place finish, and now his No. 17 team will try to build on the finish in an effort to win over the next three races. A victory at Michigan, Darlington or Richmond would secure Stenhouse’s first berth in the Chase.