By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
After a two-win campaign in 2017, there was hope that Olive Branch, Mississippi’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could take another step toward being a weekly contender for victories in 2018. Unfortunately, Stenhouse and his Roush Fenway Racing regressed a little, but they still nearly made it back into the Playoffs for a second-consecutive season.
For Stenhouse, 31, things got off to a shaky start this past season. Through the first seven races, he had just one top-15 finish (14th at Las Vegas) and he recorded two DNFs in that stretch (Daytona and Texas). There is no way the No. 17 team expected that dreadful of a start to the year.
However, things began to turn around at Bristol – a track where Stenhouse has been very consistent over the years. Stenhouse qualified an impressive fourth and he stayed near the front all race long. Stenhouse finished top-10 in both stages and when the chips were on the table in the closing portions of the race, Stenhouse and crew chief Brian Pattied played pit strategy perfect as they had fresher tires than the field.
Had it not been for a caution near the end that allowed the field to get on the same tire sequence, Stenhouse could have had a race winning car. But the driver still came home in fourth-place.
“Brian made a great call coming down pit road and taking tires before that long green flag run that we had. We got into second and I was hoping it would just go green to the end, knowing that we had better tires than [Kyle Larson], who was the class of the field all day,” Stenhouse said. “Then we restarted there at the end. Brian said he didn’t get to really check the stagger on these tires and maybe make an adjustment with it. We didn’t take fuel and that sometimes tightens you up a little bit, but, all in all, a great weekend for us.”
A couple races later, at Talladega Stenhouse nabbed another solid top-five finish.
As Spring turned to Summer, Stenhouse and the No. 17 team began to fade. Stenhouse did not record a single top-10 finish between June to September. Still, as the circuit approached the Playoffs, Stenhouse had a shot at pointing his way into a berth.
An engine failure at the final regular season race in Indianapolis doomed any hope Stenhouse had of making it into the Championship hunt.
Even though Stenhouse didn’t make the Playoff field, he had a shot to build momentum to close the season out. However, three DNFs in the final 10 races put an exclamation point on a frustrating season that included causing a couple of big crashes at Daytona in July and a public exchange of pointed words with Kyle Busch.
However, Stenhouse was able to record his season’s best finish of third at Talladega in the fall.
When all the dust settled at Homestead, Stenhouse ended up 18th in the championship standings. Stenhouse ended the season with three top-5 finishes and five top-10 finishes (both decreases from his totals in 2017).
As Stenhouse, Pattie and the No. 17 team approach 2019, there is an obvious need to find results in a hurry. Roush Fenway Racing has opted to close down their Xfinity Series program in an effort to put all of their resources on their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team which will include Stenhouse and his new teammate Ryan Newman.
Newman brings the experience of 18-career wins and he should be able to help the team identify some areas of weakness.
As far as sponsorship goes, things look solid again for Stenhouse in ’19. Fastenal, Fifth Third Bank and Sunny D will all return for another season on the No. 17. The team, as with all Ford teams, will be switching from the Ford Fusion to the Mustang body.
I expect some early struggles as the team works on figuring out the aerodynamics of the new body, but eventually I do expect at least a slight uptick in performance from where Roush Fenway Racing was a season ago.