Entering the 2017 season, not many would have guessed that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. would win a race with Roush-Fenway Racing still in rebuilding mode, but the Mississippi native showed off his restrictor plate prowess by taking his No. 17 car to victory lane not once, but twice at Talladega and Daytona for his first two career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins.
When the Playoffs started, many had Stenhouse as one of the first four out, but once again he proved the naysayers wrong by earning enough points to advance to the Round of 12. Now, Stenhouse, who sits 10 points under the cut-off line, will look to put his restrictor plate magic to good use in Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega to try and propel himself even further in the postseason.
“I know we’re gonna have a fast car,” said Stenhouse. “The Sunny D Ford will be good. I’m not really worried about the speed in our car. I feel like Jimmy Fennig and Brian Pattie and the guys on the 17 team work really hard on building our speedway cars and getting them prepared, so I feel good about that. But I think the biggest thing for me is you’ve got to have these things play out exactly right. I feel like the last two played out really well for us and we were able to capitalize on good fortune for us and cautions coming out at the right time and missing wrecks, so you’ve got to have a fast car and be a little lucky at the same time and get the job done when it comes time. But I feel like we’re capable of doing it, but I’m definitely just not counting on it.
“I think, for us, just have fun, enjoy it. We know it’s a race track that our cars are gonna be fast and let’s just go out and race and have fun and see how it all plays out. We know good and well that you could get caught up in something fairly easy and be out of it, but, for me, it’s just enjoy. I’ve got a lot of friends that always come to this race and family, so it’s hanging out with them throughout the weekend and hanging out on the boulevard on Friday night is always fun, so we’ll be doing that with my buddies and family and just enjoy the weekend and not really sit around and think about how this race is gonna play out. I try not to play out the races in my head because I feel like it never works out that way, so I really just kind of show up, get in the car and go for it.”
Despite having won the last two restrictor plate races, Stenhouse won’t have either of the cars that carried him to victory underneath him this weekend at Talladega. Stenhouse was gifted his winning car from the first race at Talladega as a memento of his first career Cup Series win and the team elected to build a new car instead of bringing his winning car from Daytona.
“It’s still sitting in storage,” he added about his winning Talladega car. “I went and saw it the other day. We put it off to the side. I told Jack I wanted it and we’ll figure that out at the end of the season, but it’s still sitting there. Our Daytona car was our backup Tallladega car that we ran, and the team tried to talk me into re-doing our first car that we had here at Talladega and I told them, ‘We can win with our backup,’ and then we won at Daytona, so I felt pretty good about that. And then I told them they could build a brand new one for here just as good, so they feel like our Sunny D Ford this weekend is really good and feel confident about what we brought. “
In addition to a win on Sunday giving him an automatic advancement to the Round of 8, Stenhouse also has an opportunity to do something not many drivers in the Cup Series have been able to do and tie a record held by the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who was an absolute master at Talladega and on the restrictor plate tracks as a whole.
Earnhardt won three of the four restrictor plate races back in 1990 and should Stenhouse win the Alabama 500, he will join Earnhardt in elite company. He will also become one of only a handful of drivers to sweep the season at Talladega.
“Throughout my whole XFINITY career, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know about the speedways,” Stenhouse said. “They weren’t my favorite. We ran decent on them. We ran good, but I never really felt like I knew how to put myself in position for our team to win, so the mile-and-a-half and short tracks I always felt like were our two good tracks in the XFINITY Series and then on the Cup side, especially here at Talladega it’s always been a track where we’ve been pretty consistent and, like I said, missing wrecks and getting good finishes, but I guess I didn’t not see my first win coming at a speedway. I think a lot of people’s first wins seem to come at speedways for the obvious reasons, but maybe tying Earnhardt is really cool, just to have the opportunity.
“I didn’t know that stat until I sat right here, so I try not to look at things too much and really focus on each week that’s coming up. It would be awesome to get a third win this season and three in a row on superspeedways. I’m enjoying them more now than I used to. I used to not really enjoy them because I feel like your outcome could be in a lot of other people’s hands, but now after I’d say the last five or six speedway races I’ve ran I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I’m able to do more with our car than I maybe wasn’t able to do early in my career. So, I’m getting to where I enjoy them a lot more.”