CHARLOTTE, NC – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. speaks to PRN’s Doug Rice as one of the 16 drivers eligible to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship during the 2017 NASCAR Playoffs Production & Media Day at the NASCAR Hall of Fame on September 13, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)
DOVER, Del. – At the end of Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway, only 12 drivers remained in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. The last of those 12 was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who made it in via a massive strategy call from Crew Chief Brian Pattie.
Stenhouse, who had been running as low as 23rd in the opening stage of the race, was struggling near the cutoff line and was in danger of missing the next round. On the opening round of pit stops, Pattie made the decision to keep Stenhouse on the race track as long as possible in hopes that a yellow flag would come out.
The No. 17 team got their wish on lap 88, when Jeffrey Earnhardt backed his No. 33 Hulu Chevrolet into the barriers at the entry to pit road. Stenhouse was able to pit from third, and finished fourth in the stage to pick up seven valuable points.
As the race progressed, Stenhouse fell back to where he had been running at the beginning of the race. In the final stage, he ran 19th, and was racing heads-up with Ryan Newman for the final place in the Round of 12. Newman beat Stenhouse on-track, finishing 13th, but the difference wasn’t enough – the No. 31 fell two points shy of the cutoff.
After the race, Stenhouse was very aware of the importance the seven points carried. “The feeling is lucky, really”, he said. “We caught the caution there right at the right time with a perfect amount of laps left in the stage to get stage points and that was the turning point of the day”.
“Our Fastenal Ford was definitely not close to what we needed, especially the last two runs. We were close before the last two runs and made some adjustments there and really fell off. All in all, like I said, I feel lucky that we had all the mistakes at Chicago and really not a good car at Chicago, Loudon or Dover but we still made it in”.
There was a relief in Stenhouse’s words, knowing that he was through what was statistically his toughest round of the playoffs. The good news for him is that the Round of 12 should play to his strengths much more.
Talladega will be the obvious race in the Round of 12 that the No. 17 will have circled on the calendar. Stenhouse has won two restrictor plate races in a row, including the one in Alabama this past May. But he will see opportunity to succeed at Charlotte and Kansas alike, where he finished in the top 15 in both of their Spring races.
Still, Stenhouse knows that advancing into the Round of 8 will be contingent on improved performance across the board from his team. “We have to run better. We have to bring faster race cars to the track because what we are bringing to the track right now is not nearly fast enough”, he said. “Hats off to the guys for fighting all day and it is nice that the round starts over”.