TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was all over the scoreboard at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His Roush-Fenway Racing team worked all day to salvage a strong finish in the opening race of the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs, and a speeding penalty was threatening to ruin the chance.
Stenhouse had one restart to save his day Sunday, and he picked off about six drivers to squeak out a 13th-place finish.
His reward? Well, Stenhouse is still last in the playoff standings. But the race this weekend is at Talladega Superspeedway and Stenhouse is probably the only driver looking forward to Sunday’s critical race.
Stenhouse scored his first career Cup victory at Talladega in May, and followed it with another win in July at Daytona. He’s won the last two restrictor-plate races of the season, and figures his best shot at making it into the third round of the playoffs is by making it 3 for 3 to land an automatic berth.
“I know we’re going to have a fast car. I’m not really worried about the speed in our car,” said Stenhouse, who is in the playoffs for the first time. “The biggest thing for me is you’ve got to have these things play out exactly right. I feel like the last two played out really well for us. I feel like we’re capable of doing it, but I’m definitely just not counting on it.”
Nope, Stenhouse has to have a backup strategy because there are so many variables in a plate race. It takes luck, skill, precision and being in the right place at the right time.
Talladega for the first three years of this playoff format was an elimination race, but it was moved this season to the middle of the second round. It’s placement in the playoffs takes the pressure off of Stenhouse to win or else.
If he can’t win the race, he’ll take what he can get in stage points. Although he’s last right now in the 12-driver field, Stenhouse is just 10 points behind Jamie McMurray at the cutoff line.
“If I can win two stages and get 20 points, I could vault ourselves ahead of the cutoff line,” Stenhouse said. “I think you’re going to see at least 10 of us racing really hard for that.”
And for the first time in these playoffs, the Ford drivers might have a fighting chance.
Toyota drivers Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have combined to win the first four races of the playoffs, and Truex’s win at Charlotte moved him into the third round of the playoffs. That victory was a relief for Truex, who was eliminated from the playoffs a year ago at Talladega after an engine failure. An accident during the spring race here led to a 35th-place finish.
“There are so many unknowns at Talladega, and you can run up front all day long and finish 25th,” said Truex. “You can run up front and run 20 laps and get destroyed. You just never know. There is so much out of your control. To go there and not have to worry about all those things is definitely a good feeling.”
In Friday’s first practice, Ford drivers took the first nine spots on the speed chart; in the fastest 10-lap averages, five Ford drivers led the charge. In the second practice, the Chevrolets picked up some speed and Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. went 1-2 to lead their Hendrick Motorsports Chevys to the top of the board.
But, considering Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 in a Ford, the Doug Yates-powered blue ovals will be trying to give the manufacturer and its engine builder a season sweep.
“We work hard at making sure we work with other Ford drivers,” Stenhouse said. “I think Doug’s engine package fits these race track really well. We work hard on our cars. I think a lot of the crew chiefs on the Ford cars really have always taken a liking to speedways and take pride in it and really pay attention to all the small details,
“And then we always meet on the weekend. All the Ford drivers get together and figure out a game plan of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to work together and make sure that one of us succeed.”
More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org