For one of the first times this season, everything went right for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
With a fresh start at JTG-Daughterty Racing—and accompanied by his former crew chiefs Brian Pattie and Mike Kelley—a smooth transition was anticipated for Stenhouse behind the wheel of the No. 47 Chevrolet. A two-month hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic should have provided the crew with ample time to catch up and acclimate to the different systems at JTGD.
But Stenhouse’s fourth-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday night was his first top-five finish since February.
“For us, it was just really good to just have a smooth race with really no issues,” Stenhouse said. “Obviously, the first race back at Darlington, I kind of ruined our day early. Then, the second Darlington, we had some issues that we couldn’t fix while we were in the race.
“Charlotte, the Coca-Cola 600, the first run, we ran up to 10th. I felt really good about it. After we came to the pits, we had some issues again that we had to get over and just didn’t really have the speed after that first run. We felt like what we had in the car was really good, and I liked the way it drove at the beginning of the 600. So we just kind of worked on that and made sure that we limited all of our mistakes and got all of our issues figured out. Brian and the boys did an awesome job with that.”
After rolling off 24th at Charlotte, Stenhouse finished sixth in first stage. On the final 59-lap green flag run, he wheeled the car from 10th to fourth behind winner Chase Elliott—the second of three Chevy drivers in the top five.
“From the drop of the green flag, I felt really good about how our Kroger Camaro ran,” Stenhouse said. “For us, it was just huge to get a good run in and pass a lot of really good cars. We ran decent at Vegas and got a good finish on pit strategy. But last night, it was just nice to be able to run up front, pass a lot of really good cars and actually catch the leaders there at a few points towards the end of the race.
“All-in-all, a great night for us and really looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum, show what we are capable of and be able to do that more and more often.”
Stenhouse showed potential early in the season. He won the pole for the Daytona 500—just the third pole of his career. The following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stenhouse came from 26th to finish third—only his seventh Cup podium. He posted one top-20 finish during the remainder of the West Coast swing. When NASCAR resumed at Darlington Raceway on May 17, Stenhouse wrecked entering Turn 2 on the first lap of competition.
Incidents such as the one at Darlington have earned Stenhouse the pejorative nickname “Wrecky”.
“The frustrating part is that I just need to get more consistent, not make those mistakes and not give people reasons to run their mouth,” Stenhouse said. “But it’s all part of it. That’s the things you have to take with the sport. Any time you have a lot of fans watching and definitely fans of different teams, you’ll have people run their mouth. But you just have to stick to what you know, stick to your team, know that you bring your friends with you to the race track, and know they’re the ones around you supporting you.
“Honestly, I think that’s one thing that I get out of working out so hard—it doesn’t just physically prepare you for the race, but mentally just keeps you focused on what you need to focus on. I know, for me, I definitely need to get more consistent. I look back at my years in the Xfinity Series. It didn’t start off great, but when our cars were right, I felt like I was able to do a lot with them, be more consistent, contend for wins, win and run up front.
“If we keep having cars like we had last night, I feel like I can make less mistakes, but also be aggressive and still get a lot out of the race car--and try and keep those haters off the internet as much as possible.”
Stenhouse has the opportunity to redeem himself at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday. Traditionally, Thunder Valley has been one of his better tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
Although the driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet hasn’t finished on the lead lap in his last three starts at the half-mile bullring, in 14 appearances at Thunder Valley, Stenhouse has four top fives and six top 10s. He feels really good about the team’s chances.
“I know (Chris) Buescher when he was here, they had some really good runs at Bristol,” Stenhouse said of his former teammate. “Our setups, looking at what we normally run versus what they ran here, are pretty similar. So I feel good about that. The feel that I have in this race car I feel like is better than really any of the feel that I had in my Cup cars over my career so far.
“I felt like last night was a car that kind of reminded me of when I raced the Xfinity Series on the 1.5-mile tracks--I could kind of put my car where I wanted to and it did a lot of the things that I was asking it to do. So, I’m looking forward to getting that to Bristol knowing that we’ve had good runs there. We’ve had chances to win there. It would be nice to be able to get up and go lead some laps, and contend for a win there as well.”