After a 13-year absence from Indiana Midget Week, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't take any time to knock off the rust.
In Tuesday night’s opener at Paragon Speedway, Stenhouse qualified fifth in the No. 17JR Clauson-Marshall Racing midget and finished fourth in his heat race. He then finished third in the 30-lap feature behind winner Kyle Larson and second-place Tanner Thorson.
Not bad for a part-timer who had never raced at Paragon and hadn't sat in a midget since the Chili Bowl Nationals in January.
“I still didn’t feel super comfortable, but not too bad for the first one out,” Stenhouse said. “I think I won the 2007 (IMW) finale at Kokomo, and I haven’t run one since.”
Stenhouse, who competes full-time in the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet on the NASCAR Cup tour, had expanded his open-wheel effort this season long before coronavirus changed the stock car dynamic. With the schedule reduced to one-day shows sans practice and qualifying, Stenhouse has more opportunities to compete on dirt.
“I had a schedule that I had wanted to run with midgets and sprint cars at the beginning of the year,” Stenhouse said. “With the quarantine and pandemic, I actually didn’t know how much I would get to race. Originally, I was going to run two nights of midget week, and now I’m able to run four since we’re not having to practice on Friday and Saturday.
“It definitely made it possible to run four nights versus just two.”
The abbreviated schedule also offered Stenhouse the chance to spend time at his World of Outlaws shop in Brownsburg, Indiana. In 2017, he partnered with Richard Marshall to form Stenhouse Jr. Marshall Racing. The following year, RJMR put Sheldon Haudenschild behind the wheel of the No. 17 NOS Energy car.
The team co-owner has seen progress with the addition of Kyle Ripper (crew chief), Nicholas Goodfleisch (car chief) and Drew Brenner (support) to the No. 17 team. And although Haudenschild has had a couple of hiccups this season—including at I-55 speedway where he flipped while leading—the 26-year-old second-generation Outlaw has five top-five finishes in his last six starts and is currently fifth in the WoO standings.
“The team is really good right now chemistry-wise, and we’ve been fast every night,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve had a couple of issues here, losing the lead late—really twice now—but man, we’ve been top three, top five every night. I like the consistency of speed we’ve had at every single race track.
“Sheldon is pumped up with how the car has been driving and getting along with everybody. So I’m just kind of letting them do their own deal. I stand back and tell them, ‘good job’ because it’s nice when you can go to Knoxville with that caliber of car and run in the top five both nights at a place where we generally have struggled a little bit. So I was happy about that.”
Stenhouse is also happy that the NASCAR Cup tour is returning this weekend to Talladega Superspeedway, where he won from the pole in 2017 and has amassed five top fives and eight top 10s in 13 starts. His average finish of 11.6 at the 2.66-mile speedway is the best of current drivers with three or more starts at the track. Despite moving to a new organization this year, bringing his former crew chief Brian Pattie and car chief Mike Kelley has eased the transition for Stenhouse.
“We felt really confident with our package at Daytona,” said Stenhouse, who won the pole for the season-opener and led the first 23 laps. “Brian is always paying really close attention with our speedway cars and keeping them were they need to be. He knows what I like as far as setups and how they drive. He knows exactly what I’m looking for the past few years. And I was really happy with how we ran at Daytona. I feel really confident that we’ll be fast at Talladega again and have a shot at the win.
“Man, we’ve had really good cars this season at different places. We’ve struggled the last two weeks—at Martinsville, which by far is not my best track, and we struggled more than I thought we would at Homestead. We just missed it on a couple of things that we couldn’t really change during the course of the race. We made it better and got the best finish out of it that we could. Hopefully, we can get that win at Talladega and continue to improve. But I’m really happy with the momentum that we have and the cars that I’ve been able to drive so far.”
This week holds significance for Stenhouse—and not just because his friend Bryan Clauson would have turned 31 on Monday. Prior to Clauson’s passing in the 2016 Belleville (Kan.) Nationals, the two drivers spent quality time racing together leading up to Father’s Day week.
“Every time I think back—really to this week—in 2016, it was the last trip and the last racing we did together,” Stenhouse said. “We raced ASCS Speedweeks and then we ran midgets at my home track (Riverside Speedway, West Memphis, Ark.). That was the last time Bryan and I would race together. I always think about that this time of year.
“I don't know where everything would be right now, particularly losing a great driver in a given sport,” Stenhouse said. “You think about Dale (Earnhardt) Sr., and what would have been if he had been around longer. Where would the sport of NASCAR be? For me, where would the Clauson-Marshall team be or USAC or the World of Outlaws or our sprint car team--everything could look a lot different.
“But I think it’s cool that we’re still racing, that we still have the Clauson name on the race track in the form of a team. It’s still fun to go out and represent.”
Stenhouse would love to add to his IMW win total this week. The 32-year-old Olive Branch, Mississippi, native believes his best shot will be at the doubleheader at Lincoln Park Speedway on Thursday and Friday night.
“Putnamville is a little similar to Paragon—except it has shorter straightaways,” Stenhouse said. “That kind of fits my driving style better than a place like Gas City, where we’ll be tonight. Those are the three races we have left. Gas City, I’ve run well there in the past, but I haven’t been there since 2007. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite tracks, but Paragon is definitely a warmup for Putnamville.”
To win, Stenhouse will have to beat his friend Kyle Larson, who has won eight straight midget races in U.S. competition and four straight sprint car events. Larson’s performance is so remarkable that Stenhouse’s midget and WoO team co-owners—Richard and Jennifer Marshall of Priority Aviation—have offered a $1,000 bounty for any driver that can beat the 2020 Chili Bowl Nationals winner in an IMW feature, starting tonight at Gas City. If Larson wins any of the remaining features, the Marshall’s will donate the money in the driver’s name to the Indiana Donor Network.
When asked whether Larson missed racing stock cars, Stenhouse replied with a laugh, “I can tell you he’s having a lot of fun.”
“Obviously, everyone knows he’s always loved sprint car racing, midget racing and just being out on the road,” Stenhouse added. “I don’t think he ever shied away from telling people that. It’s just cool to see him having a lot of fun with the way everything got turned upside down for him. It’s cool to see him to go out and still enjoying time with his family and racing sprint cars.
“The fans here definitely are having fun watching him. Having him in sprint cars is not what generations get to witness very often. Jumping in different cars in different series and continuing to win is pretty impressive. But he’s definitely having fun.”