There’s no way to sugarcoat what happened to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last season. He was fired from the only NASCAR team he had ever raced for and left with limited options for this season. He ultimately accepted an offer to drive for a team lower on the NASCAR Cup Series pecking order — the very same team that the guy replacing him just left. It was a transaction that stunned Stenhouse initially. But in retrospect, he understands why it happened.
“We had way better speed, and we didn’t capitalize on it,” Stenhouse says of his seventh and last full-time season at Roush Fenway Racing that ended with his worst average finish since 2015. “It’s obviously disappointing and, you know, some of the reasons probably why we’re in the position we are now.”
Stenhouse starts the 2020 season as the new driver of JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 Chevrolet, replacing Chris Buescher after Buescher was hired as the new driver for Stenhouse’s former No. 17 Ford at RFR. “I’ve definitely got something to prove,” Stenhouse says. “And I love proving people wrong.”
That list of people includes unnamed individuals at RFR who Stenhouse suggested weren’t fully behind him. Stenhouse says it feels like he’s back in familiar territory.
"It’s no different than 2010, my rookie year,” Stenhouse says. “Plenty of people thought I shouldn’t race. And I had a lot of fun proving them wrong.”
In 2010, Stenhouse was a rookie in the Xfinity Series. After multiple crashes and a did-not-qualify, team owner Jack Roush benched Stenhouse for two races. Stenhouse completed the rest of the season, finishing every race, and proceeded to win the next two Xfinity Series championships.
Stenhouse won’t be in the conversation this season for a championship despite any optimism he may have for the JTG Daugherty move, considering the team has been mid-pack for the entirety of its 11-year existence in NASCAR’s top series. But the team did see at least a notable uptick last season when Buescher improved his year-over-year average finish from 21st to 18th.
Stenhouse noticed other things about JTG Daugherty from his view in the driver’s seat, too, and believes on the balance it is equal to the capabilities he’s experienced at RFR, where he won twice.
“I’m encouraged because I see where they run well are tracks where I felt like [RFR] struggled,” Stenhouse says.
“A lot of the short tracks I felt like their packages seemed to be better. They’ve got their packages on the mile-and-a-halfs closer, too. I do think that all in all the program from top to bottom might be a little bit more solid to go get the job done.”
Stenhouse says he’s particularly looking forward to what the No. 47 team can do at Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway before also mentioning improvements he needs to make behind the wheel. Last season, he would either try to drive a poor-handling car over its limits or race others too closely. Those moments often produced new problems in the form of tire rubs or crashes.
“I feel like I can get speed out of a lot of cars,” Stenhouse says. “But this year it’s just doing it consistently without costing us points and finishes.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 250/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)