Recent success has Stenhouse confident about Talladega
There are few things in NASCAR racing more uncertain than the results of events at the giant restrictor-plate tracks in Talladega, Ala., and Daytona Beach, Fla. — particularly Talladega Superspeedway.
The horsepower-robbing plates make faster cars slower and slower cars faster, resulting in fierce parity and huge, tightly bunched packs of cars roaming the high banks of Talladega. Daring passes in the crowded draft late in the race often decide Talladega races.
Although making predictions for such races can be a fool’s game, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn’t a bad bet these days.
After several seasons of frustration at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level, Stenhouse broke into the sunlight this year, winning for the first time. He scored at Talladega in May, then backed up that success by winning at Daytona International Speedway on July 1.
Both of those races were crash-fests (no real surprise at either track) that went into overtime, but Stenhouse emerged from the fog to lead the final lap at Talladega and the final two at Daytona.
Now he returns to Talladega for Sunday’s Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC) as one of 12 drivers remaining in the championship hunt.
“Nothing is guaranteed when you go there,” Stenhouse said. “I’ve been crashed out of them just as easy as finishing well. We’ll see if we can’t get a win, but I’m definitely going to feel confident going to Talladega, for sure.”
Part of that confidence comes from the work of longtime Roush Fenway Racing mechanical guru Jimmy Fennig, who has been fine-tuning Stenhouse’s Talladega entry for weeks as the leader of the organization’s restrictor-plate efforts.
“Jimmy Fennig has been working for some time now on our Talladega car and been massaging it and getting it ready to go,” Stenhouse said. “He kind of takes over the whole (super) speedway program until the week of, and then our team gets it and works on it some more.
“We want to go in and win Talladega. That would be nice to solidify and make sure that we get to that next round with a win, but, if not, I think it’s a racetrack that we could still gain a lot of points.”
Late-race movement in the draft is a key at Talladega, and Stenhouse has proved in the last two restrictor-plate races that he can handle that pressure. Many observers didn’t expect him to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
“I love proving people wrong,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like going back to our 2011 championship in the Xfinity Series, nobody thought we’d win that. We had some new drivers come in in 2012 and they didn’t think we’d win that, either (he did), so it’s always nice to prove them wrong, and I enjoy doing that.”
After a 13th-place finish in Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Talladega looms particularly large for Stenhouse. He is 12th in points in the playoff field.
After Sunday’s race and the following week’s race at Kansas Speedway, the championship field will be cut from 12 to eight.
Stenhouse is 10 points below the cutoff line, but the points could be jumbled significantly in the chaos that is Talladega.
JIM DEDMON, USA TODAY SPORTS