Not since his rookie year of 2013, has Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had such a consistent start to the Sprint Cup season. Since taking over driving duties of the No. 17 from two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, Stenhouse has had little reason to be confident. Yet, after a fifth-place run at the Auto Club 400 on Sunday he currently sits 14th in points. This coming a week after he finished 37th at Phoenix, thanks to a blown tire and a crash.
Sadly enough, crashes seem to be the norm for the 28-year-old Mississippi driver. In his fourth full season as a Sprint Cup driver, Stenhouse has finished no better than 19th in points in his rookie year. Since then it seems that the only coverage he was known for was being the boyfriend of Stewart-Haas Racing driver Danica Patrick, who he competed against for the 2013 Rookie of the Year title that Stenhouse won. But in five events in 2016, the No. 17 has earned a fifth at Fontana and a 10th at Atlanta, which is more than what can be said for his rookie year.
It’s no secret that the Roush Fenway Fords aren’t what they once were. Although every Roush car made the Chase for the Cup in 2005, as of now they have not won a Cup race since Sonoma in June of 2014, one of only two wins that year. Roush staple Greg Biffle has had major issues since his last win in 2013, Trevor Bayne has not come close to relevance since winning the 2011 Daytona 500, and Stenhouse has not had an ounce of glory since winning back-to-back XFINITY championships in 2011 and 2012.
This is Stenhouse’s second year with young Crew Chief Nick Sandler, who coached Stenhouse to a trio of top-10’s a year ago and has had plenty of time to get comfortable with his driver. A comfortable driver/crew chief bond is pretty ideal, but what else sticks out is this low downforce package.
It’s already been pointed out the low downforce helps drivers maintain better car control, and it’s been said that the package especially helps drivers with a dirt racing background. It so happens that Stenhouse does have a dirt background, having run several midget races and Sprint Car events over the course of his career. He hasn’t reached an Austin Dillon level of comfort in this new package, but like Dillon, he could be expected to shine on tracks where he hasn’t done that well at in 2015.
Is it too early to say Stenhouse and the Roush Fenway organization is going to thrive in 2016? Yes. However, it’s not unlikely, with the way that team has been running. Expect Stenhouse and Sandler to pull off some great runs at unexpected places in 2016.