Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rides high into Dover; JTG Daugherty Racing eyeing more
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is riding plenty of momentum into Dover Motor Speedway.
The latest addition to the list of Daytona 500 champions, Stenhouse returns to the “Monster Mile” after a friendly battle with its concrete canyons in 2022 produced a runner-up finish, his best result of the season.
DOVER: Cup Series race postponed (Monday, noon ET, FS1) | Starting lineup
Stenhouse was comfortable right away in last year‘s Next Gen debut around the 1-mile, steeply banked oval, in part propelling him to his only top-five finish of the season. He‘s back this time with a revamped No. 47 team from JTG Daugherty Racing, emphasized by the addition of crew chief Mike Kelley during the offseason.
“I’m pumped to get back there knowing that I feel like we have a little bit better setup,” Stenhouse told NASCAR.com in a teleconference. “We had a second-place finish but felt like we had a winning race car last year, and I think I would have pushed a little bit harder knowing that maybe our tires had a little bit more life left in them towards the end of that race. And I felt like I was taking it easy at points of that last run.
“So I think all in all, I’m super-excited to get back there, knowing that maybe we could click off another win.”
Each of Stenhouse‘s three career wins have come on superspeedways — two at Daytona International Speedway and one at Talladega Superspeedway, with wins at each in 2017. But the Mississippi native has always loved these high-banked, concrete ovals, primarily spotlighted by four Bristol top fives and six top 10s in 18 starts in Tennessee. His Dover totals are lower — one top five and four top 10s in 19 starts — but the translation has been great thus far in the Next Gen era, continuing Saturday after posting the ninth-quickest five-lap average and 14th-fastest single lap.
“It’s the cars that drive the least bad that are fast, right?” Stenhouse said. “So nobody’s comfortable. The race cars aren’t comfortable to drive, the way you drop down into the corner. Basically, anywhere that’s uncomfortable feeling, I feel like, is a place that I like to excel at and that I enjoy. The concrete tracks, they don’t have as much grip, especially when the rubber builds up on them. Your cars are sliding around. It’s easy to blow through the tires, so you have to kind of drive it and kind of creep up onto the maximum grip level of the car and tires, which changes lap to lap at Dover and very similar to Bristol.”
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His winning confidence is well-guided. Stenhouse, already in his 11th year as a full-time Cup driver, has posted eight top-20 results in 10 races this season with an average finish of 14.2 — on track to better his career best by nearly three positions and blast by last year‘s 22.8 clip. Through 10 races a season ago, Stenhouse was averaging a finish of 26.9.
The impressive start, punctuated by the Harley J. Earl Trophy that helped lock him into the 2023 playoffs, features three top 10s and four top 15s in the last five races, the only blemish a 35th-place showing at Richmond after an early mistake on pit road relegated the team numerous laps down.
“I feel like we’ve been really competitive at a lot of different race tracks,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like last year, mile-and-a-half race tracks and superspeedway race tracks were probably where we were the most competitive and felt like, obviously, our short-track program needed some work and (part of that is) work with some help from Chevrolet and from Hendrick (Motorsports) and just kind of utilizing all our resources that we had.
“And I mean, we’ve got a few top 10s and been competitive on short tracks. So I’m definitely thrilled about where we are as a race team at this point of the season.”
Stenhouse credits Kelley not just for the fast cars but for how the driver perceives his abilities and feels ahead of a race weekend. That circles back to their pairing as crew chief and driver from 2010-12 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, where they claimed back-to-back championships in 2011 and 2012.
“I think mentally, it’s totally different and showing up ready to go,” Stenhouse said. “Looking at the 2011 and ’12 (Xfinity) seasons, our short tracks were really strong. And so he’s like, ‘Hey, just because it’s a short track doesn’t mean you can’t get it done there. We’ve just got to give you something capable of being able to get it done with.’ So that part of it, and then just looking at different things throughout the week, I feel like our meetings are going really well of really dissecting what needs to be better at each race track. And we’re doing a great job as a whole organization together looking at that.”
JTG Daugherty Racing has existed in its current form since 2009, but team co-owner Tad Geschickter has been a car owner in NASCAR dating back to 1995 in the Xfinity Series. In Cup, JTG has never finished higher than 13th in points, that mark coming in 2014 as a result of AJ Allmendinger’s Watkins Glen triumph that propelled him into the playoffs.
Stenhouse knows he’ll be in the postseason thanks to his Daytona 500 win. But he admits they’re targeting more.
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“I think right now, what we’re doing at JTG Daugherty Racing is we’re trying to model something that I would say like a Furniture Row (Racing) did back when they were a single-car team,” Stenhouse said of the organization that won the 2017 championship with Martin Truex Jr. “Trying to get as many resources in the door as they can, utilize them the right way and then go perform on the race track. We’re trying to kind of do that at JTG Daugherty Racing right now.
“We got the best alliance we’ve ever had with Hendrick Motorsports and with Chevrolet, and we’re trying to just make the best of those situations. And so for me, as a driver, when you click off a win, no matter what, when it is, it always gives you a little bit more confidence showing back up to the race track, especially during that season. And then the guys giving me cars a lot more competitive than what we had last year, especially at those race tracks we struggled at — Phoenix and Richmond, Martinsville, places like that — it’s nice showing up.
“Even the road course (Circuit of The Americas), we were a lot more competitive than what we were there last year. And so little things like that give me more confidence, like, ‘Hey, I do still know what I’m doing. And I haven’t gotten worse.’ “