The high hopes that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brought to last season caught another gear right away when his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet rocketed to the pole of the season-opening Daytona 500. Stenhouse, still feeling like he got the raw end of a deal that saw him fired by Roush Fenway Racing and replaced by Chris Buescher, got to spend a week in the Florida sun as the toast of NASCAR's Cup Series.
"I think there's a handful of us that feel like we have something to prove," Stenhouse said then, referring to the group of ex-RFR employees like crew chief Brian Pattie and veteran engineer Mike Kelley who joined his unexpected move to the No. 47 team.
The team ultimately couldn't convert the good starting position into a win at the season's biggest race. Stenhouse led early, then got involved in an incident with William Byron and was later penalized for making a move below the yellow line. Stenhouse finished 20th.
The theme of the team's missed opportunity in the Daytona 500 seemed to follow Stenhouse most of the season. The team took advantage of a few chances — a well-timed caution in the first Las Vegas race allowed Pattie to pit Stenhouse and grab a third-place finish — but other chances washed away. Take the May race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Stenhouse said last year that he had one of his best-handling racecars for that 500-lap event, but the result was a 34th-place finish due to a crash. And then, when the series returned to Bristol later in the season, Stenhouse was involved in another crash on Lap 28 and finished 40th.
Cleaning up those on-track, race-ending incidents would go a long way for Stenhouse this season. Last year, the No. 47 recorded eight DNFs and just 16 lead-lap finishes. Some of those were just simply bad luck (Stenhouse's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway ended in an unavoidable pit road crash, and electrical gremlins sidelined the No. 47 during the summer race at Kansas Speedway), but eliminating avoidable incidents like his opening-lap crash at Darlington Raceway in May makes the bad-luck days hurt less.
Stenhouse, too, could stand to clean up his efforts on pit road. Last season, he tied for the fifth-most speeding penalties among Cup drivers when he racked up six such penalties on pit road.
Stenhouse's best shot to make the Playoffs is the same this year: the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. Last year, the team took its Daytona 500 car to Talladega Superspeedway in June and nearly found a win when Stenhouse led five laps, won a stage, and then finished second. The finish confirmed Stenhouse's status as one of the better superspeedway drivers in NASCAR (he's earned a top 5 in one-fourth of his 32 starts at Daytona or Talladega), even if his aggressive maneuvers often draw derision from his opponents and sometimes lead to incidents.
Optimizing the opportunities at Daytona and Talladega that play into both Stenhouse's strength and the increased parity that JTG-Daugherty enjoys at those events gains importance this season with the addition of three road course dates on the Cup calendar. Stenhouse, now in his ninth full-time season, has a best finish of 15th and average finish of 23.8 in his 18 career Cup road course starts.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 200/1(per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)