Re­cent suc­cess has Sten­house con­fi­dent about Tal­ladega

The Signal - - SPORTS - Mike Hem­bree @mike­hem­bree Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY Sports

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.

Ricky Sten­house Jr. has won two of the three re­stric­tor-plate races this year.

JIM DEDMON, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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