Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – It may have been the hardest effort Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has ever had to put in for a fourth-place finish. But the result at Bristol Motor Speedway Monday afternoon, his first top-five of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season made every clutch decision, every zig and every zag worth it for Stenhouse and his Roush-Fenway Racing team.
“We were really, really strong and I felt confident coming into the race yesterday and today,” said Stenhouse, a former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and two-time Monster Energy Series race winner in 2017.
“We fought adversity. We lost track position multiple times and had to pass a lot of cars to get back to where we were.
“[Crew chief] Brian [Pattie] made a great call coming down pit road and taking tires before that long green flag run we had. We got into second and I was hoping it would just go green to the end, knowing we had better tires than the 42 [race runner-up Kyle Larson], who was the class of the field all day.”
Stenhouse, who won at two superspeedways — Talladega and Daytona –last year, looked absolutely a contender on the sport’s opposite venue, the half-mile Bristol bullring on Monday – a full 24 hours after the original green flag dropped.
As he did on Sunday, Stenhouse again methodically worked his way forward in a two-day rain-interrupted event that proved difficult for most drivers to proficiently establish any consistent rhythm.
After negotiating traffic all day, having his crew fine tune the No. 17 Sunny D Ford Fusion and getting through the tight traffic, Stenhouse finally got close enough to the front to challenge. And he did.
He restarted in fourth place after a caution flag for a late-race incident involving fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski and quickly worked his way up to then-leader Larson’s bumper providing one of the best battles of the afternoon before Larson was able to drive off.
“It was fun,” Stenhouse said. “I had to get to him and he was really loose. I was able to get underneath him and then I couldn’t quite clear him. It would have been nice if I could have cleared him, but we still didn’t have the best car there on the short run. We were definitely a better long-run car.”
Still, it was just the dose of can-do that Stenhouse’s team needed after a slow start to the 2018 season – after celebrating 2017 with a pair of big trophies and lots of optimism. It was his first top-five and only second top-15 of the year as the series heads to another short track, Richmond (Va.) Raceway this weekend and then back to Talladega Superspeedway where Stenhouse won from the pole position last spring.
“We were fighting track position, gaining it and losing it back-and-forth over the last two days but all in all, it was a really strong run for our Sunny D Ford,” Stenhouse said. “We had a good Friday, a good Saturday and a good race on Sunday and Monday. I’m glad we were able to get it all in and we appreciate the fans for sticking around. That was a fun race.”
And best of all for Stenhouse, a turning point for the early season.
“All in all, a great weekend for us,’’ Stenhouse said. “Hopefully this will kind of get us going and kick start us into next week and the rest of the season.