The bad news for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? “Nothing much good happened [last] year,” he says. The good news? “We didn’t run very well, but we still got to the last race of the regular season and had a shot to make the playoffs.”
Stenhouse didn’t make the playoffs and failed to win a race in 2018 after scoring two restrictor plate victories the year before. His average finish dropped off more than two spots (19.4), and his number of lead-lap finishes fell drastically, from 24 to 17. He failed to finish a career-worst six races.
It all came in what will go down as a transition year for his Roush Fenway Racing team. The team opted for a major course change early last season when Matt Kenseth was brought in to replace Stenhouse’s teammate Trevor Bayne for select races, with a goal of using the 2003 champion’s knowledge to sort out issues plaguing the RFR operation. Stenhouse says Kenseth ultimately echoed what he and Bayne had been reporting about their cars.
“Matt was saying the same thing I was, but just a different way,” Stenhouse says. “I think that was nice for the teams to hear and be able to maybe spark a different idea or something with the way he kind of relayed his information and his feel of the car.”
The transition for the team continues this season as Ryan Newman arrives as the full-time driver of the No. 6. Stenhouse, a good friend of Newman’s, can’t wait.
“[Newman’s] experience of being super consistent will be nice to have,” Stenhouse says. “I look at what racetracks he excelled at [last] year versus the ones that we excelled at. The ones that he’s really good at, we need a little help on. It’ll be nice to hear that information of what he feels like helped them, because he’s well integrated in that system of what setups to run and things like that.”
Stenhouse has areas he wants to improve this season, notably correcting mistakes on pit road and on the track. “I felt like some of the mistakes I made [last] year left quite a few points on the board that definitely would’ve changed the scenario closer to the end on those last couple of races,” Stenhouse says.
His No. 17 team needed three backup cars last season after practice crashes, diagnosing those incidents as largely related to brake failures. Technical issues aside, the top of Stenhouse’s wish list for his team this season has two entries: improved communication and quicker evolution.
“I don’t think we evolve fast enough,” Stenhouse says. “I think we start the year okay and then we’ll fall off and then all of sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, man. We need to hurry up and do something.’ And then we do, and we kind of get back to where we were at the start of the year, but we never get ahead.”
That’s been a common refrain from Stenhouse in recent seasons as he’s looked for improvement from the RFR team. If the team can make headway on that front, he says, the playoffs this season are in sight.
Stenhouse could nail down his playoff entry right when the season begins. He expects RFR to have an advantage in the Daytona 500 because of the recent progress it has made over the last two seasons on the team’s restrictor plate program.
But Stenhouse doesn’t envision a massive changing of the guard in the Cup series thanks to the new rules that reduce engine power and increase downforce at most tracks.
“The teams that are fast are still fast,” Stenhouse says. “So, no, I don’t think it’s just going to drastically change. I do think that any change like that does give teams like us an opportunity to close the gap. That’s what we’re making sure we try and do.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 100/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)