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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 2018 NASCAR Season Driver Preview

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Did you predict Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to win not once, but twice last season? Stenhouse’s two wins — one each at NASCAR’s restrictor-plate palaces of pack racing, Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway — stand as one of the most unexpected feats accomplished by any team in 2017. But ask Stenhouse about it and he’ll tell you that the most surprising part of the wins was how his competitors suddenly changed their approach to racing him at Talladega in the fall.

The conventional wisdom says that successful restrictor-plate drivers tend to gather drafting partners as other drivers latch on for a free ride to the front.

“It felt like it was almost the opposite at Talladega,” Stenhouse says. “Our car was fast, but I didn’t feel like anyone wanted to work with me because I felt like they didn’t want us up front. So that was kind of a challenge.”

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Stenhouse was a victim of a multi-car accident in the fall Talladega event and admits that the Daytona 500 can’t come soon enough as he looks to earn another playoff spot. Improvements in Roush Fenway Racing’s restrictor-plate program, spearheaded by former crew chief Jimmy Fennig, have the team’s Ford feeling very secure when in the draft.

“When they’re fast and they drive good, you can make moves and you are more confident being in the middle,” Stenhouse says.

Beyond the restrictor-plate success, Stenhouse’s 2017 season still featured many of the same pitfalls that the team encountered in previous years. Most of the team’s success came away from the familiar 1.5- and 2-mile speedways that comprise so much of the schedule. Stenhouse’s best track category for average finish was at short tracks — Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond — where he averaged an 11th-place finish.

“I think short tracks were okay,” Stenhouse says,. “I think if we make our mile-and-a-half program a little bit better, we should be able to contend a little bit more consistently.”

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But finding speed in the 1.5-mile program has been a priority for RFR for several years, and Stenhouse describes a bit of a paradox when it comes to finding the solution heading into

this season

. “We’ve got to get our short-run speed better. Our long-run speed is really good,” Stenhouse says. “I think we’re missing it mechanical grip-wise. Whatever we’re doing, we’re not using the tires enough early in the run. Which, maybe on the other hand, late in the run you’ve got a little bit more tire left as a result. Our balance doesn’t really change; we just aren’t as fast and don’t fall off.”

While finding that speed, Stenhouse also wants his team to solve that familiar riddle of its cars losing performance in the middle of the season. 

“We still have the dip in the middle part of the year that we still need to get out, Stenhouse says. “We don’t need to fall off and play catch-up towards the end of the summer, and that is kind of what we did again (last) year.” 

The departure of Greg Biffle as a veteran influence last season proved to boost the RFR operation. No longer chasing financial support for three cars created better equipment and stability with two. “I know there was some last-minute updates throughout (last) year that we were able to get implemented into both cars a lot easier than all three,” Stenhouse says. “I felt like our resources were more focused in on what we needed.”

His trip to the postseason in 2017 leaves Stenhouse hungry for more. “We want to get in the playoffs, make a run in the playoffs,” Stenhouse says. “I think for us to move the needle from where we were (last) year we need to get a win on a non-plate track.”