As the saying goes, to be the man, you have to beat the man.
For Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in order to become the man he wanted to be at Roush-Fenway Racing, he needed to get to Victory Lane first.
Now, thanks to his first two wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and his first playoff berth, Stenhouse says he’s closer to finding his voice and filling the leadership role at RFR that once was held by Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
“Having a little bit more confidence of running well, leading laps, winning races, and getting back to the playoffs, I think that helps,” Stenhouse said during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas. “People listen, but it also gives me confidence when giving input that I feel like it’s right.”
Stenhouse says he’s been giving more input lately as the No. 17 Ford team excitedly looks forward to the 2018 season and the 60th running of the Daytona 500. With both of his wins in 2017 coming on superspeedways, Stenhouse says he’s never felt this confident that “The Great American Race” could lead to a great start for his team.
Stenhouse has finished in the top five in four of his past six restrictor-plate races, including the wins last season in the spring at Talladega and in July at Daytona. However, making a deeper run in the playoffs (Stenhouse made the Round of 12) would entail similar success on restrictor plates, combined with better consistency on 1.5-mile tracks and short tracks in 2018.
RELATED: Full schedule of season reviews
It also will require learning from his first playoff experience when he finished no better than 13th (at Charlotte) in any of the first six races before he was eliminated from contention at Kansas.
“The intensity was real high,” Stenhouse said of the playoffs. “I didn’t think it was going to be a thing. I kind of felt stressed out a little bit (laughs). I didn’t really see that coming. I thought it was going to be show up like any other race.
“And I think when we got knocked out of the playoffs and zeroed in and focused on what got us to that point, (it was) consistency and running well.”
Stenhouse got back to that consistency toward the end of last season. The final four races all netted finishes of 15th or better, including an eighth-place result at Phoenix that was his best in that stretch.
“It really sets us up for the offseason,” Stenhouse said. “The guys are pumped up at the shop and ready to go back to work.”