Stenhouse seeks summer rebound in Kentucky
June 27, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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SPARTA, Ky. -- Flipping the calendar back a few months to mid-March, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had reason to believe 2014 was the year he'd take the next step forward in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, building off his Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign with his eyes set on one of the 16 available Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup spots in the newly expanded format.
A runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway -- widely viewed as one of the more difficult tracks on the circuit, particularly for younger drivers -- gave the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team a boost of confidence that it would be in the Chase conversation come September, especially considering it was his second top-10 finish in four races to open the season after notching just three all of last year.
A dozen races later, things aren't looking so swell.
"We've been struggling as of late ... I think we're missing a lot of things," said Stenhouse Jr., currently 27th in points. "The problem is that it's not just one thing that we've missed it on, but everybody at the shop is working really hard. We've changed a lot."
Over the course of the five races following Bristol, Stenhouse averaged a finish of 31.6 before recovering slightly at Talladega Superspeedway with a 10th-place result. It wasn't exactly the momentum booster the No. 17 team had hoped for, however, as the 26-year-old quickly sunk back into mediocrity and has averaged a finish of 27th since, including last week's 31st-place result at Sonoma.
It's been strange to see Stenhouse regress in 2014 after a promising rookie campaign, especially given the success that Cup newcomers Kyle Larson (10th in points) and Austin Dillon (18th) have enjoyed through their first 16 races in a full-time premier series ride.
"I think we've missed it as a team, as a 17 team, at race tracks," Stenhouse Jr. said. "I've missed it as a driver when we've had decent cars. At Michigan I thought we had a pretty fast car and I got in the wall early, so I think that kind of ruined a chance there. Last week we had a pretty fast car at Sonoma, which last year I was 37th the whole race, and we were inside the top 10 at times, so I think at times we've got the right pieces and we've just got to put them all in our race car and make sure we don't make mistakes."
There's still ample time to go on a summer run and right the Roush Fenway ship -- which had been listing as a whole before Carl Edwards' win at Sonoma -- but after this weekend's Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m., TNT) at Kentucky Speedway, the series will be in single-digit territory in terms of races left before the Chase field locks.
Kentucky weekend hasn't gotten off to a great start for Roush Fenway, seeing Stenhouse, Edwards and Greg Biffle all finish outside the top-25 in opening practice and outside the top-20 in final practice. Stenhouse didn't exactly help himself out when he spun and brushed the wall in the opener, either.
Still, despite his early struggles this weekend, Kentucky's 1.5-mile layout may offer a chance at redemption for Stenhouse where other tracks might not. Strictly speaking in terms of average start, Stenhouse Jr.'s best seven tracks are all intermediates, including Kentucky. Sooner or later, you'd have to think that a good starting position will eventually translate into a good finishing spot.
"I think looking at Jack (Roush)'s history on the mile-and-a-halves it's pretty strong, but I really enjoy the mile-and-a-halves," Stenhouse Jr. said. "We did really well with them in the Nationwide Series and the speed that they have is a lot of fun, and I enjoy that. Normally at these mile-and-a-halves there are so many lanes that you can pick from, so I enjoy racing on them. The mile-and-a-halves are just a lot of fun and carry a lot of speed. It's all about keeping your momentum up, so I really enjoy them.”
But it's going to be difficult to just get things going all of a sudden. The team hasn't led a lap in 2014 after being out front for 35 of them a season ago and has finished on the lead lap in just six of 16 races. Stenhouse and crew are clearly still determined, but sometimes if it's not your year, it's just not your year. Determination can only carry a group so far, but Stenhouse made it clear his team is not rolling over heading into the summer stretch.
"Jack is definitely working really hard at making sure that the pieces that we're bringing to the race track are better than they have been," Stenhouse said. "We thought we had it back earlier in the season when we had a really good car that turned right off the truck at Bristol. We all had really good runs, so we’re looking to bring fast race cars to the race track, but everybody from (engine builder) Doug Yates to our body shop to our chassis shop, everybody is working really hard and they have their heads down digging as hard as they can."