Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. simply wanted to make something happen.
But the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was shocked at how quickly the rear end of William Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet snapped around when Stenhouse poked the nose of his Fusion to the inside Byron’s car in the first 150-mile qualifying race in Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel.
The Hendrick motorsports rookie was a victim of aerodynamics, and when Stenhouse took the air off his car, Byron nosed into the outside wall, forcing him to a backup car for Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’ll join teammate and seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, a casualty of an earlier incident in the same race, at the rear of the field for the Great American Race.
“I was really surprised at the 24, ‘cause we were almost back on the straightaway,” Stenhouse said on Friday during a question-and-session with a handful of reporters in the Daytona media center.
“It was a little bit interesting that his car must have been that loose, because we were hitting the tri-oval and back onto the straightaway.”
Later in the event, Stenhouse attempted to move to the inside of David Gilliland’s Ford, with a similar result. Gilliland, like Byron, will start the Daytona 500 in a backup car.
For more than two years, a point of emphasis at Roush Fenway racing has been the development of its superspeedway cars. That effort paid off in a pair of Stenhouse victories at Talladega and Daytona last year.
With his car capable of running the bottom lane in the Can-Am Duel, and with the Team Penske cars of Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski leading a freight train around the top, Stenhouse was trying to pick his way forward—but could find few allies on the bottom of the track.
“The top lane is just so dominant,” Stenhouse told the NASCAR Wire Service. “It has been for a while. It takes a good group of cars to get the bottom going. I think that’s one of the biggest things we’ve done at our company in the last two years is to work on our speedway cars to get ‘em where we can run the bottom.
“I felt like, for the first two or three years of my Cup career, I couldn’t run the bottom very good. I had to stay in the top lane to keep my momentum up. I feel like I’ve been able to be on the offensive side, now that I can run the bottom.”
Based on their respective misfortunes, Byron and Gilliland may have thought Stenhouse was a bit too aggressive. But Stenhouse was trying to learn as much as possible throughout the course of the race.
“It was tough when all the Penske guys kind of had us all lined up,” Stenhouse said. “I was just trying to get people to get to the bottom with me and get double-file. I was kind of bored riding around. I was trying to give the fans something they wanted to watch, rather than just riding around.”
Stenhouse finished fourth in the Duel behind Blaney, Logano and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. the excellent handling of his car and his willingness to use it should make Stenhouse a factor in Sunday’s season-opening points race.
NO-SHOW FOR THE SHOWMAN IN THURSDAY’S FIRST DUEL
If Alex Bowman wants to shed a nickname he doesn’t particularly like—“Bowman the Showman”—he took a good first step in Thursday night’s first Can-Am Duel 150-mile qualifying race.
Locked into the top starting spot in Sunday’s Daytona 500 by virtue of his pole-winning performance, Bowman was a virtual no-show in the qualifying race. After leading the field to green, Bowman steered his No. 88 Chevrolet to the top of the track, dropped to the rear and stayed there for the rest of the event.
This was all by design. With his starting spot assured, Bowman was protecting his car for the Great American Race—even if it meant sacrificing a chance to earn points for a top-10 finish. Because he didn’t run in last Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash, Bowman will start the Daytona 500 without any real competitive experience in the draft.
Kevin Harvick provided a harsh analysis of Bowman’s choice.
“Alex Bowman didn’t learn anything today, in my opinion,” Harvick said. “They’ll go out and practice (on Friday). Riding around starting on the pole is great, but not knowing what your car is going to do is a complete waste of time, in my opinion.”
It’s not completely true, though, that Bowman learned nothing. He and his team spent the race practicing pit stops under NASCAR’s new rules, which have reduced the number of over-the-wall put crew members from six to five—thereby requiring a completely different choreography.
The pit-stop practice, and the information learned from it, could benefit the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.
In Friday’s second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Daniel Suarez posted the fastest lap of Speedweeks so far, powering his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to an average speed of 203.179 mph in the draft. Ryan Newman was second fastest at 202.945 mph, followed by Michael McDowell at 202.867 mph. Suarez also was fastest in Friday’s first session with a lap at 199.840 mph…
On Friday, Austin Dillon joined the list of drivers who will start the Daytona 500 in backup cars, bringing the total to eight. Though Dillon finished sixth in Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel qualifying race, his car sustained enough damage to warrant rolling out the backup. When the 20 (Erik Jones) crashed, he come across and knocked (Dillon’s) whole front end down and bent the front snout down,” said team owner Richard Childress. “That’s where all the sparks were coming from.”