Before I get started on Ricky Stenhouse's performance this past weekend, I want to highlight just how exciting this NASCAR season has been up to this point. We've seen action at one of the most historic venues in the United States, a Rookie wone one of the most prestigious races of the season, and there is an excitement that comes with this generation of vehicles and team owners.
The excitement I am seeing surrounding the sport is something I have not seen in over a decade. The sport has brought together both old and new fans by introducing new owners, drivers, and cars and then taking these new owners, drivers, and cars to historic tracks to deuce it out like the good ole times. These cars also force drivers to have a different skill level to be impactful during races. The weak will be exposed. It is a fantastic time to be a fan of NASCAR.
Growing up outside of Charlotte, in the same county that Dale Earnhardt is from, you grow up around racing and the culture surrounding NASCAR is a part of you whether you like it or not. Cabarrus County is home to more NASCAR teams than any other county in the nation. Most teams are based out of either Concord, Kannapolis, or Mooresville. Harrisburg's only team, JTG Daugherty Racing HQ, lies in the same parking lot as the QT on the corner of HWY 49 and Caldwell Road (You can visit my Twitter profile @DawsonHaywood to see what I'm talking about).
So, why have I been covering JTG Daugherty Racing for the past few weeks? Harrisburg has a significantly younger history when compared to the other municipalities in Cabarrus County (Kannapolis, Concord, Mount Pleasent, Midland, Locust). Until the Hickory Ridge High School came along and athletes started going D1, the town did not have much representation at the national level. JTG Daugherty Racing is the only athletic entity from Harrisburg to compete professionally, and that is something that needs to be recognized and appreciated. Therefore I have made it my mission to get this team known in the community, and based on the numbers I have been receiving, it's been working.
This past weekend the NASCAR tour made its way to Las Vegas and drivers in the Cup Series competed in the Pennzoil 400. Our boy driving the beautiful #47 Sunny-D car had a great starting spot to begin the race in the Top-10 (#9). Las Vegas Motor Speedway is very similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway, so this race is a good indicator of how drivers will do when the Coca-Cola 600 comes around. The only notable differences are the front straightaway is more rounded out and the banking on the turns is less severe.
Stage one was not eventful for Ricky Stenhouse, and the entire field remained relatively uneventful until lap 38 when Cole Custer spun from 25th to bring out the caution flag. Shortly after, on Lap 43 on the restart, Austin Dillon and Justin Haley made contact. Unlike the Truck Race on Friday, our Cup Series Drivers could get around the track more than ten times before another caution was issued. Tyler Reddick, unfortunately, took a bit of a twirl on turn four on lap 64. Alex Bowman would go on to win Stage One. Unfortunately for Ricky Stenhouse, he would drop from 9th to 21st, his worst start of the season.
Once again, stage two was uneventful for Ricky Stenhouse, but he started bouncing back from his stage one performance. In stage two, arguably the most aggressive racing up to this point in the season was presented by Chase Briscoe and Kyle Busch. We know Kyle likes to be bold, but Briscoe was not having it, and reasonably so. Brad Keselowski was taken out while sitting comfortably in the eighth position on lap 104. So what have we learned? Karma is a b****! Don't wreck Ricky when he has a chance to finish the Daytona 500 in the Top-10. Christopher Bell's car would do a little dance for us on lap 142, and Harrison burton would spin out of 21st, bringing out another caution. Ross Chastain would win Stage Two, and Ricky Stenhouse would build from stage one and finish 13th. He would, unfortunately, finish the race with no stage points.
Now, the final stage of this race made up for the uneventfulness coming from Ricky Stenhouse. On lap #175, Ross Chastain would lead the field to start the final stage. Then, after a long, clean 44 laps, cars would begin pitting. Kyle Larson would head to pit road with the lead, and Ricky Stenhouse would lead the pack for four laps before Denny Hamlin broke something and stalled, bringing out a caution two laps later. Stenhouse was then forced to pit during the caution but would start back in 5th.
I'm not sure how he's gotten so lucky, but Ricky has managed to dodge a potentially race-ending wreck in the past two races. This time he missed a wreck in turn four caused by Erik Jones on Lap 265. Now, Mr. Ricky Bobby over here made a mental error sending him way back in the pack. He was penalized for speeding during the caution, and when overtime started, Ricky was out of the Top-10 and would finish the race in 21st.
Now, I hate to do it, but I'm going to be critical of Ricky Stenhouse here for a second. Every race this season, Stenhouse should have finished in the Top-10. We will give him a pass for the Daytona 500 because that nerd Brad Keselowski does not know how to drive straight. This finish at Las Vegas was unacceptable. Speeding on pit road is a mental mistake that cannot happen, especially late into the race when you give yourself no time to make up for the penalty. Some sources I have seen said the car was having engine issues, but I cannot confirm this. If that is the case, then it's not Ricky's fault, and I'm just being a jerk.
With three races into the season, I am confident enough to say that Ricky will clean up these mistakes in time for him to compete in the playoffs. JTG Daugherty Racing has given him a phenomenal car each race this season that is proven to run with the big boys.
It is still early in the season, but I am optimistic that JTG Daugherty will find themselves in the playoffs this year. Currently, they are tied with Kevin Harvick in sixteenth with 69 points (nice). As long as the little things get cleaned up, JTG Daugherty is in for a great season.
This coming week drivers and their teams will be traveling to Pheonix to compete in the Ruoff Mortgage 500. This race is one to pay close attention to because the championship race is in Pheonix this year, and the Ruoff Mortgage 500 will give drivers an idea of what to expect.
For JTG Daugherty, I am not as confident in this race as in the previous three races, but I have good reasoning for that. I will stand by that I think JTG Daugherty produces Top-10 finishing cars on a week-to-week basis, but Ricky Stenhouse has historically not done well in Pheonix.
Over the last nine seasons, Stenhouse has finished, on average, 20.72. However, the last two years with JTG Daugherty have brought that number down. Since stepping in with the team, Stenhouse has an average finish of 24.25. Since joining the Cup Series, this is the second-lowest average of any driver to come through JTG Daugherty, the first lowest being Ryan Preece, who averaged 30th.
Staying optimistic here, with Next-Gen cars, how drivers drive is different, which has given Stenhouse a bit of an advantage. If you take away the wreck in the Daytona 500 and the avoidable speeding penalty in the Pennzoil 400, Stenhouse would be sitting with Aric Almirola as one of the only drivers to finish every race in the Top-10 this season. So until I'm proven wrong, I'll keep predicting and expecting a Top-10 finish from Stenhouse and JTG Daugherty Racing.