Avoiding late race carnage, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. capped off a dream weekend with his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Talladega.
Headlines in the state of Mississippi will not read Ole Miss football or NFL draftee Chad Kelly. Instead, it’ll read NASCAR driver and Olive Branch native Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. capping off a clean sweep at the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama Sunday.
Stenhouse, Jr., a former two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, won his first career pole Saturday and put the icing on the cake a day later, winning his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 158th career start.
Stenhouse, Jr. became the 11th driver to win their first Cup race at Talladega, the first since Brad Keselowski April 26, 2009.
Stenhouse, Jr. exited out of his No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford with jubilation as car owner Jack Roush, his girlfriend Danica Patrick and his race team joined the celebration in victory lane.
In an interview, Stenhouse, Jr. said his team made the win possible after years of subpar performances since debuting in Cup at Charlotte Motor Speedway May 29, 2011.
“We’ve been terrible for a long time. Every race we’ve been getting better and better,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “We knew that Talladega was a good race track for us, it’s been a good one in the past. The car was so fast, qualified on the pole and got the win. I can’t say enough about the guys and it’s cool to have Jack Roush in victory lane.”
Stenhouse, Jr. said it was an awesome feeling seeing his closest peers celebrating his victory.
“It’s been a long time that I pulled into victory lane,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “This series is so fun to race in and glad to see Jack smiling in victory lane. I know he’s been wanting this for a long time. To be up there with Jimmie and Kyle, racing as hard as we did, we beat some good ones Sunday.”
In a post-race conference, Roush said he didn’t doubt his team but Sunday’s win came as a surprise.
“I’ve enjoyed a lot of success and never doubted the fact that we would win more races but I didn’t know it was going to be Sunday,” Roush said. “Regardless of how much speed you got in your car, you got to have luck going on for you at Talladega.”
After leading the first 13 laps, Stenhouse, Jr. didn’t lead again until the end of the race.
In between the laps Stenhouse, Jr. lead, he faced adversity after Ryan Blaney wrecked on the 162nd lap. Blaney retired from the race and finished 39th.
Stenhouse, Jr. sustained front nose damage, requiring him to pit. Stenhouse, Jr.’s crew repaired the nose, met five-minute repair rule and continued racing.
Eight laps later, the dreaded ‘Big One’ all drivers fear of happening struck and collected 18 cars.
Entering the backstretch, third-place runner A.J. Allmendinger tapped second-place Chase Elliott and sent him towards the pack of cars.
Denny Hamlin avoided Elliott unscathed but Joey Logano wasn’t fortunate and slammed into Elliott, resulting his No. 24 Hooters Chevrolet to blow over as cars quickly scrambled to avoid the big melee.
Allmendinger also lost control and a sideways Logano, with a push by Martin Truex, Jr., careened into the right side of Allmendinger’s car and slid driver’s side until it tipped over upside down where his battered No. 47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet laid to rest.
Elliott kept his car on the ground, returned it to pit road and finished 30th.
No driver was injured including Allmendinger who got out of his car after the safety crew lifted the car back up.
Other drivers involved were Logano’s teammate Keselowski, Stenhouse, Jr.’s teammate Trevor Bayne, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Michael McDowell.
Stenhouse, Jr. avoided the carnage and remained in contention.
A three-car accident 17 laps later sent the race into overtime where on the final restart, Stenhouse, Jr. pulled a slingshot pass on Kyle Busch at the end of the backstretch and powered his way towards the front with two laps to go.
The power of the draft however, helped Busch pass Stenhouse, Jr. at the exit of turn three. Stenhouse, Jr. side drafted Busch in the tri-oval, nearly losing control of his car as Busch eked out Stenhouse, Jr. entering the last lap.
Busch and Stenhouse, Jr. continued their side-by-side battle entering turn one but with the help of Jimmie Johnson, Stenhouse, Jr. cleared Busch and held the lead for good.
Stenhouse, Jr. moved high and low to block Busch and Jamie McMurray and sealed the victory for Roush Fenway Racing, snapping a 101-race winless streak.
Roush Fenway Racing’s last Cup win was June 22, 2014 when Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway.
The win was also Roush’s fourth at Talladega, its first since Matt Kenseth Oct. 7, 2012.
Roush said he remained confident Stenhouse, Jr. will win a Cup race despite the team’s setbacks.
“I was confident that Ricky would win a race this year,” Roush said. “We’ve had some struggles with our pit crew getting the tires on and off the car. That has been our challenge and the only question I had. Whether the team will be able to support Ricky and his effort to win a race. I knew we had the right mix of people and the right places this year. If we have a little bit of good fortune, then we will win races.”
Stenhouse, Jr.’s crew chief Brian Pattie said part of the team’s success this season came down to being focused.
“We try not to get ahead of ourselves. We got better people in better spots and our cars are faster which helps out tremendously,” Pattie said. “Ricky drives his tail off and don’t have to question his commitment level, it’s a 110 percent every lap. The year has gone good thus far, we ran good on tracks that he shouldn’t run well because he hates it. What he likes track wise and what I like are two different things. It’s mended well and hope we continue.”
Stenhouse, Jr. dedicated the win to his friend and former sprint car star Bryan Clauson.
Clauson, 27, lost his life in a racing accident at Belleville Speedway in Belleville, Kansas Aug. 7, 2016 in his quest of running 200 races in a single year.
“I’m glad we ‘parked it’ for my buddy Bryan,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “He was with us on that last lap.”
Stenhouse, Jr. said the support of Clauson’s family and dirt track fans has been cool to witness.
“Everyone remembering Bryan has not gone down at all and it’s continued,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “It’s just the legacy that Bryan left upon all of us.”
Stenhouse, Jr. added Clauson’s legacy has impacted others, including “Dan the Heart Man.”
“Bryan was an organ donor that we didn’t know about,” Stenhouse, Jr. said. “I haven’t got to meet Dan, who has Bryan’s heart. Bryan’s family did a couple of weeks ago and it’s cool to see Bryan is still helping people after he passed away. I look forward to meeting people that Bryan helped along the way.”
Stenhouse, Jr.’s break through win gained him three spots in the points standings and now sits 12th. The win also clinched Stenhouse, Jr. his first playoff berth for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, beginning Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
The Cup drivers will leave the intimidating challenge of wreck avoidance and drafting to the fast, multi-groove Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas for NASCAR’s first night race May 13.
Busch is the defending spring winner, Stenhouse, Jr. finished 13th.