The 2017 NASCAR season will mark Jack Roush’s 30th season of owning at least one car in NASCAR’s Premier Series. It will also be a throwback of unexpected sorts, as Roush-Fenway Racing will take the grid in the season opener with a lineup of drivers who have a total of one Cup win. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1990.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne are the face of RFR’s Cup program these days, and the lone win between the two of them is Bayne’s surprise Daytona 500 victory in 2011. Veteran Greg Biffle left the team at the end of last season as RFR downsized to a two-car operation for the first time since 1996.
Stenhouse is poised to operate as the team’s leader for the first time. Racing for an organization that has struggled consistently for several seasons, Stenhouse has narrowed his focus.
“I feel like as a leader of this company my role is making sure that when we go back to the shop I give the right feedback of what to go work on to make our cars faster,” Stenhouse says. “That’s been a bit different process than normal.”
It certainly has. Stenhouse’s time in both the Cup and XFINITY series has always included a veteran as a teammate. From Biffle to Carl Edwards in the Cup Series, to Biffle, Edwards and Matt Kenseth in XFINITY, Stenhouse has rarely been the most experienced driver in the debrief room. “Now I feel like it’s kind of my place to become that role, and that’s something I still got to get better at as well,” says Stenhouse.
The added pressure of change hasn’t fazed Stenhouse. He’s not worried about the loss of Biffle or a third team from the struggling organization.
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“There’s things that we have that are changing, and I think everything’s changing for the better,” Stenhouse says. “It gives us that opportunity to move things around and get better. Because we’re definitely not happy with where we are, and so if we just stay the course, then you’re just going to kind of stay where you are.”
What’s a realistic expectation for the once-proud organization this year? Stenhouse would like to see the team replicate the gains it made before last season — he improved his average finish by 4.7 spots in 2016 — and then maintain that level of performance.
“I think we were off on downforce throughout the middle part of (last) year,” Stenhouse says. “I thought that was one of our strong suits at the beginning of the year, the aerodynamics of our car. But as we went throughout the season, I feel like that was an area that we didn’t keep up in and are kind of are lacking.”
A hope for Stenhouse is that the arrival of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp will lift all Blue Oval boats, even in unexpected areas.
“I think when there’s only a few Fords out there, I feel like you might not be able to get through tech line as good as you want,” says Stenhouse, referencing how teams stretch gray areas of the rulebook. “Whether that be templates or whatever, now (officials) have to look at bigger group of Fords.”
Regardless, Stenhouse says his hopes haven’t changed.
“Your goal going into every season is to compete, and compete for wins and run out front,” Stenhouse says. “That’s still our mindset every time we go to the race track.”