SPEEDWAY, Ind. – It’s a drizzly Thursday evening and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn’t thinking about his upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A playoff bid is on the line for the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing driver – and perhaps that’s always somewhere in the back of his mind, compartmentalized.
Right now though, he’s getting ready to race his NOS-sponsored Clauson-Marshall Racing midget in the USAC inaugural dirt race in honor of Stenhouse’s late friend and fellow dirt racer Bryan Clauson.
And maybe, this evening of enjoyment will bring him an advantage Sunday.
“I used to race a lot of sprint cars throughout my Xfinity career. I’d run probably about 20 sprint car races a year and then a few midget races and I felt like that’s probably when I was at my best,” Stenhouse told NASCAR.com while seated in the Clauson-Marshall Racing hauler prior to Thursday’s BC 39. “Because when you’re out racing different cars and adapting to different track conditions, I feel like that’s when you’re probably the sharpest. When I moved to Cup, Jack (Roush) kind of asked me to quit racing sprint cars for a while and I felt like I kinda lost the edge when I came back to run dirt cars. So, I feel like over time, it’s kind of coming back a little bit.
“But I do think it keeps me sharper. Going into this weekend, I think I’ll be ahead just because I’m in a race car throughout the week. It’s hard to beat any track time — even if it’s in a different race car.”
Here at the dirt track, Stenhouse is simply another racer – he hangs with his team on Indy’s muddy grounds and if few fans hadn’t called for autographs, he would appear just like any other driver in the garage.
But Monday is different. Monday, he’ll put on his Monster Energy Series fire suit and withstand the gaze of many eyes upon him because that’s when he’s tasked with winning his way into the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs. Currently, Stenhouse sits 17th, one spot and 68 points outside the coveted 16-car playoff grid.
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There is a certain desperation for him, now.
“First off, it’s the Brickyard 400, which is a prestigious race in itself, one of those bucket-list races that people want to win,” Stenhouse said. “There’s really not much I probably wouldn’t do to get in the playoffs. It depends, we’ll have to see. I feel like those are always game-time decisions, like how aggressive do you want to be or how aggressive will you be to make the playoffs.”
Coming off his first two Monster Energy Series wins last year, Stenhouse’s 2018 season has been relatively quiet. He’s had some strong runs – notably at the first Bristol race, Daytona and the site of his first career win, Talladega, where he finished fifth. The Roush Fenway fleet’s cars just aren’t where they’d like them to be right now, he said, and mistakes have tarnished otherwise promising races.
“I feel like my team is really good. I feel like my team is some of the best at getting the most out of a car and the most potential out of what we got …,” Stenhouse said. “My crew chief and our engineers are working really hard to kind of fast-forward the engineering process to get us cars before the end of the year (that are) more of what we want, so that we can at some point, focus on what we’re going to do for 2019. … We definitely have a lot more room and a lot more potential on the car side to get faster. … I love where my team is – we’ve gotta get our cars to kinda catch up with where our team is.”
“Right now, even if we made the playoffs, with the cars that we got and the speed that we have, I don’t see us going very far in the playoffs,” he added. “So, I think we’re still continuing to try to find more speed week-to-week and we’re bringing different cars to the track week in and week out now, trying to find that speed. So we’re kind of already going toward 2019, but we’ve still got a lot of year left. … There’s races that we still feel like we can get a win at, so if we don’t make the playoffs, we still want to win. And that will be something that we’re aiming for.”
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This weekend, the No. 17 team brings a new car to the track, different from the one they tested with at Indianapolis months ago. Armed with momentum from a fast car at Bristol and a career-best run of 12th at Darlington last week, they’ll compete for a chance at kissing the racing world’s most famous bricks.
One of those competing cars is his newest teammate, Matt Kenseth, who has split the No. 6 ride with Trevor Bayne this year. For Stenhouse, Kenseth’s arrival mid-year “lit a fire” in him – and instilled confidence.
“When you don’t do that (well) week in and week out, you kind of start wondering if you are telling (the team) the right things,” Stenhouse said. “So, I feel like it’s been nice having Matt kind of reassure that. … You don’t ever want to say, ‘Hey, it’s not me.’ But at the same time, you also need your own confidence. After a while, it’s kind of tough to keep that confidence up when you aren’t going out and winning even though … you go out and you tell yourself, ‘Hey, I’m doing the best I can, maybe it is me, I don’t know.’ For me, it’s just been reassuring. You’ve got Matt and I’m like, ‘Hey, Matt, I really would like my car to drive like this’ and he’s like ‘Well, when I was at another organization, the cars can drive like that, they’re capable of driving like that.’ We’ve got to figure out how we can get our cars to drive like that. Matt’s brought a lot of good information. … I feel like I kinda got another fire underneath me, like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to continue to push ’em, push the team to make sure that we’re getting the work out of the team that we need in the organization.”
While Kenseth’s arrival has proved beneficial, Stenhouse admitted that he was “kind of mad” at some Roush Fenway employees’ early predictions that Kenseth would run up front right away in the No. 6.
“I knew for a fact that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been driving these cars. On one hand, I was a little frustrated when they hired Matt to kind of do that, but then after a while, look, Matt clearly says that we’re struggling as an organization so I think Matt coming over kind of lit a fire in all of us to work harder, make sure we’re working together and really fast-forward the process of building new cars and trying to find something that’s going to build some speed in our cars.”
There’s a sense of unpredictability with Monday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard after rain washed away all practice and qualifying sessions. Stenhouse will roll off the grid 16th, matching his starting spot of 2016 at the Brickyard when he finished a career-best 12th.
To make the playoffs, he’ll need to better that career-best by 11 positions.
“Obviously it’s going to take a career finish here for us to make the playoffs, getting a win,” he said. “But then I also look at how the race played out last year here and it’s not the same scenario obviously — it was in the middle of the summer – but I feel like now, those chances with it being the last race and last-possible time to make the playoffs, that could make even the race from last year look really similar. Kasey (Kahne) was able to sneak a win in there and I bet there was probably five or six drivers that I thought at one point were going to win that race the way it was at the end. I made a mistake in it last year – I felt like we had a top-10 car.
“We’ve just got to make no mistakes going into this weekend.”