Ricky Stenhouse Jr. goes into the first NACAR Cup race in St. Louis with four consecutive top 10 finishes. (HHP/Chris Owens)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rides high (relatively).
The JTG Daugherty Racing driver is yet to claim a win after 14 NASCAR Cup Series races this season, but he is in the midst of the best part of his Cup career.
Team No. 47 scored a win for Stenhouse in Sunday’s inaugural race of the Cup Series at Worldwide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Illinois.
For the first time in 506 Cup career starts, Stenhouse has had four consecutive top 10 finishes.
At that course, 34-year-old Stenhouse finished second at Dover Motor Speedway (his best finish on a paved course of 1.5 miles or less since he finished second at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016), eighth at Darlington Raceway and eighth at Kansas Speedway and then seventh in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
What makes Stenhouse’s personal record even more impressive is what preceded it.
In the first 10 races, Stenhouse and the No. 47 team had only one top 10 finish, a 10th place finish at Auto Club Speedway. Aside from that, Stenhouse had four DNFs. Three were for wrecks (Daytona 500, Atlanta and Talladega) and one for a drive train problem at the Circuit of The Americas.
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But before Dover, Stenhouse’s best finish outside of Auto Club Speedway was 21st at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I think for me and our entire team this run in Dover showed what potential we have if we do everything right and don’t make mistakes and everyone does their job,” Stenhouse told SPEED SPORT. “That gave us a lot of confidence… we try to get it right every weekend but we don’t always succeed. But I think it’s definitely given the whole business a little boost of confidence that what we’re doing and what we’re working on is in the right direction, and it’s always a huge bonus to get that kind of validation.”
After a miserable first 10 races, Stenhouse is now on course for his best season since 2018 with one top five and five top 10s. He had three top five finishes in 2018.
Was there a whiplash to the overall expectations of Stenhouse and his team?
“(Crew Chief) Brian Pattie and I said, ‘Man, if we can get the same cars as everyone else, we feel confident in our team’s ability and our ability to go out and compete and get the job done.’ We have the same equipment now,” Stenhouse said.
But having the same car can only go so far.
This season, JTG Daugherty Racing has moved from a two-car operation to a one-car operation. This means that the team produces less data to extract practical information from.
“We may not have as many resources or great manufacturer support, but we have some really good people in our business,” Stenhouse said. “We’re learning as fast as we can with this car and just trying to take something away from (every) weekend that we can take to the next weekend to improve our program. So it’s been an interesting year, how different the cars are and the different tendencies of this race car… We have one car that we get information from every week. It is difficult. So our notebook is building, but slower than some of the larger teams that have four notebooks every weekend.”
As a driver, Stenhouse says the biggest learning curve for him when it comes to the next-gen car is how he uses the brakes.
Unlike the last generation of cars, he tries to “avoid all costs”.
“I always used some braking to really get our car turning,” Stenhouse said. “But we could change our brake sizes, brake discs and calipers at any time. You don’t want to step on the brakes with this racing car. … It just slows the car down too much. Because our braking package on this car is so big compared to what we used to have. With the drag this pack has, it takes a long time for that momentum to build back up when you use the brake. So that’s something I focused on on the driver’s side.”
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Which brings us to WWT Raceway.
The 1.25-mile track outside of St. Louis has a tight corner at turns one and two that will force drivers to apply some braking before taking the faster end of the track at turns three and four.
Stenhouse has launched three Xfinity series there, but the last one came in 2010.
Given the challenge of braking the next-generation car, Stenhouse expects it to be able to handle Gateway, which Stenhouse doesn’t see as a short distance because of the length, but because you drive it.
“The fracture potential is better than ever,” Stenhouse said. “They’ll really corner on Turns 1 and 2 and be able to slow the car down in less time than we used to be able to. Everyone has to brake. Where I do feel the brake is difficult is on a mile and a half circuit when you don’t necessarily have to use the brake. So everyone will be taking a break this weekend. Of course you need fewer breaks in turn three, but apart from that you can also use the downshift to slow down. So it’s just a really interesting time to find out which philosophy behind the wheel will be the better one.”