Eight points-paying races into 2022, 10th-year Cup Series veteran Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is on pace for a career-worst average finish. His current 28th-place position in the points standings would also be a career low for the two-time series winner and former back-to-back Xfinity Series champion.
And, yet, he’s nowhere near out of this thing.
Talent has never been a question with Stenhouse, now in his third year with long-running JTG Daugherty Racing, and it certainly isn’t now despite the early-season hiccups.
We’ve continued to hear — and seen it played out on the race track — how there will be comers and goers in the Next Gen era, particularly early on as teams get a handle on things. It’s no surprise to see a perennial stalwart like Hendrick Motorsports looking beefy to start the year, but flip the token and we’re seeing its Toyota counterpart Joe Gibbs Racing being consistently outrun by a team like Trackhouse Racing, in just its second season.
Perhaps it just hasn’t been Stenhouse’s turn yet — sure doesn’t mean it isn’t coming.
“I like what you said right there: ‘Everybody has a turn.’ I had a horrible race at Martinsville, but I was racing Denny Hamlin, who won the weekend before,” Stenhouse told NASCAR.com on Monday. “So, it’s just crazy to me when you look at it. It seems like when somebody kind of hits on something, they stay in the top 10, top five pretty consistently. And then like, all of a sudden somebody misses it and they’re really bad. So, we’re scratching our head right now on the short-track program, but I feel really good when we go to Talladega in two weeks. I know we’ll have a good car there; we had a good one at Atlanta and Daytona. Looking forward to getting back to the mile-and-a-halves, because I thought we were a little more competitive there as well. I’m hoping this is kind of our month.”
We’re gonna go ahead and tentatively call this the
summer of George spring of Stenhouse, because of his 41 career top-10 finishes, a whopping 19 of them have come at the next three tracks on the schedule. And a lot of positive momentum can be built over a three-week span.
Not to mention, if there are two things Stenhouse loves in this world, it’s Bristol and dirt.
Well, he’s in luck.
“I always love coming to Bristol,” said Stenhouse, last year’s runner-up in Sunday’s Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, FOX) “Just being around there, I feel like I’ve always had a shot to win. And even though I’ve never gotten a win, man, we’ve battled for wins. Finished second in the Cup car, the Xfinity car and led laps in both and just had a really fun time every time we go to Bristol. I get excited.
“Obviously, finishing second here last year makes me more pumped up and ready to go. Still a lot of unknowns and don’t really know what the weekend kind of holds for you until you run some practice laps, see how the car’s handling and really go from there. It’s definitely one that I‘ve always looked forward to.”
Stenhouse, a bonafide superstar of the dirt-racing community, propelled his No. 47 Chevrolet to a runner-up finish in last year’s inaugural running of the unique event, which wound up standing as his sole top five and one of just two top-10 finishes he netted in ’21. Given his proclivity for strong results at the next spate of tracks, it’s conceivable that if it is indeed “his turn” as a Next Gen stud, all of those figures could be topped over the coming weeks.
That said, there’s no telling if last year’s race — during the day, in wet conditions and with a different generation of race car — will look anything like this year’s.
That’s all just part of the intrigue.
“I think that’s what is fun about dirt racing. You’re never sure what track conditions are going to be like,” Stenhouse said. “You’re never sure how your car’s going to handle on it. … The Next Gen test looked like they were making some really good laps around Bristol. Steve Swift and the whole crew there does a really good job of getting the race track smooth, and I think that’s going to be really beneficial for the handling of this race car. …
“You’ll see some beating and banging. I think you’ll see some side-by-side action and I think this car is going to be a little bit better for that. Our car last year, you beat and banged, you’d get a tire rub and then you’re in trouble. I think this car could be better in that aspect.
“It’s going to be fun.”
Especially if it sparks his season. Or, with one spot higher in the finishing order than last year, puts him in the playoffs.