By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
A little bit of luck was just what Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. needed to move on to the Round of 12 in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Entering the Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway, Stenhouse was tied with Austin Dillon for the cutoff in the Round of 16.
In the closing laps the battle for the final spot in the Round of 12 came down to Stenhouse and Ryan Newman. Although Newman was ahead of Stenhouse on track, he was between one and eight points behind as positions changed in the closing laps. Newman gained six positions on the running order, but it was not enough. Stenhouse finished 19th, one lap down, but more importantly, two points ahead of Newman who was 13th in points.
Newman said that his team simply did not have the speed,
“Well, we just weren’t good enough, as simple as that. We didn’t have a fast-enough race car, we didn’t have the right strategy. We qualified better, that was a plus, but these first three races were a challenge for us. It seemed like everybody else stepped up their game and we didn’t.”
A bit of luck in Stage 1 gave Stenhouse the crucial track position he needed for the remainder of the race. His crew chief, Brian Pattie, called for the No. 17 Fastenal Ford Fusion to stay on track as long as possible during the first round of green flag pit stops. Stenhouse was inside the top-five when Jeffrey Earnhardt spun into the sand barrels, causing a race-altering caution.
With only five cars on the lead lap, Stenhouse was elevated from running outside the top-20 to inside the top-10. He picked up a fourth-place finish in Stage 1, gaining seven championship points which proved to be the difference. Stenhouse dropped through the field throughout the rest of the race.
Stenhouse admitted that he got lucky at Dover,
“The feeling is lucky really. We caught the caution there right at the right time with a perfect amount of laps left in the stage to get stage points and that was the turning point of the day. Our Fastenal Ford was definitely not close to what we needed, especially the last two runs. We were close before the last two runs and made some adjustments there and really fell off. All in all, like I said, I feel lucky that we had all the mistakes at Chicago and really not a good car at Chicago, Loudon or Dover but we still made it in. Really it is hats off to the guys for fighting all day and it is nice that the round starts over.”
In the Round of 16, Stenhouse had an average finish of 19.67. The only stage points he earned were at Dover. If Stenhouse wants to move from the Round of 12 to the Round of Eight, he will likely need to improve on that average finish.
Stenhouse admitted that his team has to run better,
“Well, we have to run better. We have to bring faster race cars to the track because what we are bringing to the track right now is not nearly fast enough. All in all it is positive momentum that we did make it to the second round.”
After the reseeding for the Round of 12, Stenhouse moves from 12th in points to eighth, 49 points behind point leader Martin Truex, Jr.
Now Stenhouse, Pattie, and their entire Roush Fenway Racing team will prepare for the race of the Round of 12 next weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.