Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a realist.
Approaching the halfway point of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford is embroiled in a tight points battle for one of the last spots in the Playoffs.
Through 17 races, Stenhouse is 16th in the standings, but the defending winner of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is not currently in a Playoff-eligible position, give that 19th-place Austin Dillon has secured a top-16 spot with his victory in the season-opening Daytona 500.
But Stenhouse can make the points issue moot by repeating as the winner of Saturday’s race, and he’s practical enough to know that the last restrictor-plate of the regular season gives him his best chance.
“Yeah, for sure,” Stenhouse said Thursday between practices at Daytona. “I think we’ve got Daytona, and I feel like Bristol—there are two tracks that we can still potentially win at, being able to go out and win a race.
“Obviously, there are race tracks where things can play out. I don’t think we have the speed at the mile-and-a-halves yet to go out there and win like we want to, so I think, realistically, when I go to those mile-and-a-halves, I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s somehow manage a 12th-place finish.’
“Whether you get a couple stage points and you finish 15th and you’re averaging basically a 12th-place finish, that’s what we look at when we go to some of those tracks, but Daytona definitely Saturday night is a really big opportunity for us, but for everyone else, too.”
BUBBA WALLACE PROMISES EMOTIONAL DISPLAY IF HE WINS ON SATURDAY
When he finished second to Austin Dillon in the season-opening Daytona 500, Bubba Wallace lost his composure on the dais in the media center.
There were tears and hugs with his family, as Wallace reveled in the strong finish in his first race as a full-time driver for Richard Petty Motorsports.
Since then, the highlights have been infrequent, with a charge to the front at Bristol in the traditional Petty colors being the most noteworthy. But Wallace considers Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) a chance to return to the forefront.
And if he does happen to win that race, Wallace promises a major celebration and another emotional display.
“I probably seem boring as hell right now, because I’m not crying and putting on a show and hugging my mom and all that ‘foo foo’ stuff,” Wallace said Thursday at Daytona. “Amanda (Wallace’s girlfriend) and I had dinner with my crew chief Drew (Blickensderfer) and his fiancé Lori last night. He was like, ‘Man, both times I have won here, I went straight back to the room and went to sleep.’
“He said that ain’t happening if that happens Saturday. So there’s going to be a lot of emotion and you will probably see my guys come in like Clint (Bowyer’s) guys did at Michigan. Spraying Coke or any beverage around and making you guys all feel a part of the celebration.”
Just because Wallace hasn’t been over-the-top with displays of emotion since the 500 doesn’t mean he isn’t driven to win.
“I think about winning all the time, and I think that’s what drives all of us,” Wallace said. “Once you kind of lose the dreaming about winning and you are just sitting there watching these old races and saying, ‘Damn, that would be cool to win’… As soon as you lose that, then you are out.
“But for me, it’s still a dream to go out and win in NASCAR, win a Cup race, and there is no greater opportunity than this weekend. Every emotion is coming after that, so have your recorders and video cameras ready.”
FEMALE TIRE CHANGING TANDEM SET TO MAKE HISTORY AT DAYTONA
Breanna O’Leary and Brehanna Daniels have a lot in common.
They both go by “Bre” for short.
They are both women who have learned to excel in roles that once were, by custom, reserved for men.
They are roommates. They were both college athletes.
And when they enrolled at their respective universities, neither O’Leary nor Daniels had any idea they would be jumping over a pit wall with an impact wrench in their hands.
But that’s what both O’Leary and Daniels will be doing in Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
O’Leary will change the rear tires on Ray Black Jr.’s No. 51 Chevrolet fielded by Rick Ware Racing. Daniels will change the front tires. The event will mark the first time two women have performed over-the-wall pit crew duties for the same team in the same race.
Individually, they are the fifth and sixth female crew members to reach NASCAR’s highest level. Daniels is believed to be the first African-American woman to go over the wall in a NASCAR national series event.
“I think the whole situation is cool,” O’Leary told the NASCAR Wire Service. “We’re both females and roommates, and we’re both “Bre.” We say we’re “Bre squared.” When we’re standing by each other, they like to shout “Bre” so they can laugh at us when we both look.”
But Saturday’s race will be serious business for the two women, who followed similar paths through NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity Pit Crew Program.
O’Leary played softball at Alcorn State. Daniels was a point guard and shooting guard for Norfolk State. They both came to tryouts at their respective schools with little idea of what to expect. But NASCAR D4D pit crew coach Phil Horton saw talent in each of them.
“I played softball at Alcorn State, but at that time, I was working on my Masters,” O’Leary said. “I was a graduate assistant to the strength and conditioning coach. When coach Horton was coming through with NASCAR Diversity, they just happened to come to Alcorn, and my strength coach was helping out.
“And he said, ‘NASCAR’s coming—I want you to do it.’ And I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ We didn’t even fully understand, but he knew it was a workout and something to be competitive in.”
When Daniels attended her tryout at Norfolk State, as “the only girl in the gym,” she opted for the unknown of NASCAR versus taking video of a professional basketball game. It proved to be a life-changing decision.
Both Daniels and O’Leary earned invitations to the D4D Pit Crew national combine, and both made the cut. They have both adapted to changes in pit guns and new rules that cut the number of over-the-wall pit crew members from six to five.
Those adaptions sometimes include carrying a 65-pound tire, a challenge for Daniels and her 5-5 frame.
“When my carrier has adjustments to make, I have to carry my own tire, running around the car,” said Daniels, who is changing tires at NASCAR’s highest level for the first time. “So, thank God I have that strength, because those tires are heavy.
“I have to carry the tire in my left arm, and I have my impact wrench in my right hand. It’s going to be interesting. I’m ready, though.”
Daniels is both ready and ahead of schedule.
“Ever since I got in the sport, I always asked coach ‘What does it take to get to the Cup level?’” Daniels said. “And he was like, ‘Oh, it takes three or four years to get there.’ And I always thought that was just too long.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to try to get there before that.’ It hasn’t been two years since I’ve been in the sport, and I’m already making my Cup debut. I’ve been making progress every time I practice.”
If Daniel’s has been impatient from a career standpoint, she has made good use of the patience she learned as a point guard, waiting for just the right moment to zip a pass to a teammate.
“I have to be patient being a tire changer, too,” she said. “When I drop down, I can’t just immediately dive into hitting the first lug nut, ‘cause then my pattern’s going to be all messed up. I have to have that pause initially, then I go in to hit my five off. Everything’s much cleaner that way, too.”
ELLIOTT SADLER WOULD SETTLE FOR AN EXTRA FRACTION OF A SECOND
The last time JR Motorsports teammates Elliott Sadler and Tyler Reddick raced at Daytona International Speedway, Reddick won by the closest margin in NASCAR history.
In fact, the distance between the two Chevrolets at the finish line in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race was so small that the gap went beyond the one-thousandth-of-a-second limit in NASCAR timing and scoring. By measuring the miniscule difference, NASCAR determined that the actual margin was .0004 seconds, a record.
But Sadler isn’t looking for atonement in Friday’s Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Winless in his last 54 Xfinity races, he’ll settle for a trip to Victory Lane, no matter the margin.
“It’s not really redemption for me—it’s more opportunity,” Sadler said of the return to the Birthplace of Speed. “We always run really well in our restrictor-plate race cars for JR Motorsports. We had a chance to win the race here in February.
“We definitely had the fastest car at Talladega and almost got wrecked on pit road by the 42 car (John Hunter Nemechek) and had to speed from getting wrecked, and that cost us a lap.
“Our cars are fast, and it’s an opportunity for me. We’re going to be in the middle of it one way or another. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to go for it at the end. That’s all you can hope for in the these restrictor-plate races.”
Sadler has an additional incentive to break his drought. His long-time sponsor, OneMain Financial, is pulling back from its support of Sadler’s team, and the driver’s future with JRM is uncertain.
“We’ll see where I fit in,” said Sadler, who has begun conversations with potential sponsors for his No. 1 Chevy. “I’m 43 years old. If I was 23, I’d be flipping out about it, because I’ve been through this before. It’s not my first rodeo. I understand that there are some things I can control and some things I can’t.
“But I’m going to focus on what I can control this year, and that’s on the track, that’s running good and trying to stay up front, trying to stay a part of the championship chase and see where that takes me.”