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Ryan: Life in the Danica Patrick shadow never has bothered Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Sometimes, even Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s girlfriend seems more miffed than he is about the frequent overshadowing for the permanently less renowned half of racing’s most highly publicized couple.

Leaving a restaurant in New Hampshire after a rare joint interview in July 2013, a worker wished Patrick good luck for the weekend.

“You know Ricky’s racing Sunday, too,” she bristled with a steely glare. “You can root for him, too!”

Stenhouse just smiled and clutched Patrick a little more closely as they walked away.

It always has been how he nonchalantly and non-combatively handles the dynamics of a relationship fraught with the stress of disproportionate celebrity.

“I don’t mind being known as her boyfriend,” Stenhouse said Sunday after the first win of his Cup career. “She doesn’t mind being known as my girlfriend. It goes either way, and we couldn’t be in a better place right now.”

Though Patrick’s incomparable media savvy automatically receives credit as she is the unrelenting focus of the pair, Stenhouse’s win at Talladega reinforced the overlooked reasons his demeanor is as important to the bedrock of their bond.

He is the archetype of the strong, silent type from the not-quite Deep South (yes, he hails from Mississippi but his hometown is a half-day’s drive from the Gulf Shores).

He comes off as self-assured, uncomplicated and completely secure in his ability and his lot in life – which would seem to be necessary attributes for dating the most famous woman in the history of auto racing.

Patrick is equally strong-willed but naturally much more visible than her boyfriend.

Besides the inherent attention from being the first woman to lead either the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500, Patrick also thrusts herself into the limelight by hawking “athleisure” (via her Warrior clothing line), healthy food (a cooking show seems a given for the former winner of a Chopped celebrity edition) and life coaching (her how-to book “Pretty Intense” is coming in January).

It would seem understandable (perhaps even expected by many) for some measure of resentment to manifest itself for Stenhouse.

Yet the 29-year-old with the perennial smile and spate of facial hair (sometimes a goatee, sometimes a Jeff Gordon-esque pencil moustache) always seems nonplussed by questions about the incessant attention foisted upon his girlfriend and whether it defines him.

It might be impossible to explain in full how they make such a high-profile relationship work, but Patrick and Stenhouse deserve immense respect for deftly navigating (at least outwardly) the logistics, politics and pressures of mixing business with pleasure on a national stage.

There is a certain yin and yang to the relationship with Stenhouse’s affinity for dirt bikes and down-home sensibility balancing Patrick’s taste for Michigan Avenue sophistication and societal transcendence.

“I’m just so, so proud of him,” Patrick told reporters in victory lane. “He works his butt off. He works harder than any driver I know. He works tirelessly.”

This is what often gets missed in the glamour shots of a tuxedo-clad Stenhouse (avec mullet) accompanying Patrick to various red-carpet events.

There rarely is visual evidence of the crack-of-dawn wakeup calls necessary for Stenhouse to build unity within the No. 17 Ford team.

“Ricky has had ample opportunity to mail it in, yet he’s at the shop at 6:30 a.m. working with the guys on occasion,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said. “He has really taken that leadership mantle.”

It’s a vestige of the 2010 season when Stenhouse was demoted to grunt work by team owner Jack Roush for several weeks after too many Xfinity Series crashes.

He responded by winning the next two series championships and earning a ticket to Cup at the time the relationship with Patrick became public.

“She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spend more time at the shop, whether it’s we need to fly somewhere a little bit later because I need to spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop or want to go to dirt races or anything like that,” he said. “She knows how hard that I’ve worked. She understands that I’m going to go to the shop a lot, and to have that support and her knowing where I’m coming from is great to have. “

That blue-collar work ethic might be most telling in explaining what does seem to grate on Stenhouse – a lack of recognition for the quiet breakthrough season he was enjoying before Sunday’s exclamation point at Talladega.

Though the expiration date is fast approaching to be considered part of NASCAR’s youth movement (Stenhouse turns 30 in October), there has been scant regard paid to his backstory (beyond Danica, of course) as the 2017 hype machine breathlessly kicked into gear to spin the yarns of Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson.

How many knew that Talladega was the closest approximation of a hometown track for Stenhouse (a native of Olive Branch, Mississippi)?

How many know the full story of how this kid from a suburb of Memphis (not exactly a USAC hotbed) became an open-wheel star?

Maybe now the perceptions will change even as Stenhouse’s actions remain constant.

As well-documented as Larson’s rise has been, Stenhouse’s isn’t much different. He didn’t bring wheelbarrows full of cash to reach NASCAR. It’s more of an untold Cinderella story.

Tony Stewart (who calls Stenhouse “son”) plucked him from the obscurity of driving dirt (in his father’s sprint cars), and Jack Roush (with Smoke’s blessing) then gave him a chance in stock cars.

There is no question that Roush and Stewart saw prodigious talent and raw speed in Stenhouse.

Perhaps they also saw an innate quality for managing the spotlight – while hardly worrying about being outside its glare.

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He is Talladega’s 11th first-time winner in Cup, but Stenhouse’s victory on the 2.66-mile oval wasn’t as capricious as others in the past (hello, Bobby Hillin Jr.).

Aside from a crash in the Daytona 500 and a lost weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Stenhouse consistently has been a top-10 performer.

If not for a late mistake at Atlanta Motor Speedway (where he qualified fourth and was headed for a top five) and subpar pit stops at Auto Club Speedway (where he lost more spots in the pits than he gained on track), Stenhouse might be ranked top 10 in points heading to Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway – a 1.5-mile track that is in the playoffs and a good benchmark for title contenders.

“My confidence has been really high all year,” he said. “We know what racetracks we need to work on. I think Kansas will be a good test for us. … We’re continuing to strive to make our cars better, and I feel confident that guys back at the shop, (crew chief) Brian (Pattie) and everyone, there’s not many teams that pay attention to the details I feel like that the 17 team does.”

The influence of Pattie could play a key role in ensuring Roush Fenway Racing avoids a repeat of a precipitous decline in results last summer. As a crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009, Pattie showed he knew how to leverage consistency to championship contention.

It might sound boring or clichéd in its simplicity but acknowledging the monotony of a title run also can be its foundation.

“Just focus, focus one week at a time, execute, and after the checkered flag falls on a Sunday, we’ll regroup on Monday and start over,” Pattie said Sunday. “Just try and not get ahead of ourselves.  That’s just the biggest part.  Obviously we’ve got better people and better spots and the cars are faster.  That helps tremendously.”

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Talladega seemed more like a traffic jam than normal Sunday. Per usual, cars were lined up three abreast and 10 rows deep for much of the race.

What was unusual this time was how difficult it was to go anywhere.

“I thought it was super hard to pass,” said runner-up Jamie McMurray, whose sublime aggression in the pack was more magnified because so many others were struggling with advancement. “I don’t know how everybody else felt. Until the tires wore out and the cars started sliding around, it was just three wide, and there really wasn’t anywhere to go.  I actually raced in about 30th for quite a bit of the race because there (were) no holes.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has struggled on plate tracks since last year after finishing third or better in all four races in 2015, said some tweaks to the engine have left cars stalling out.

“We just kind of get stuck side by side too easy so it’s harder to make passes,” he said. “It changed the way the draft worked and I really haven’t liked it as well.

“It took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as they create runs and maintain runs and how you put tougher passes and do things on the track. Now everybody is stuck side by side. If you not in the first or second row, you’re really just kind of riding behind the guys nowhere to go. Because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to.”

Nearly half the top 10 finishers at Talladega also started in the top 10 (a number that might have been higher without the massive pileup with 20 to go). Qualifying tends to mean little at plate tracks, but as the opener in the second round of the playoffs in October, it would seem to behoove teams to focus on starting up front – or developing creative strategies to get there — if Sunday is a harbinger.

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When two storied teams break triple-digit winless streaks in NASCAR’s premier series, it makes a strong case for legitimate parity so far this season.

The downturn for Joe Gibbs Racing certainly has contributed to the diversity of eight winners in 10 races. But Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing also have put themselves in position more often to end their skids.

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Talladega’s 80,000-seat grandstands were much closer to capacity than Richmond’s 60,000-seat venue last week, prompting some Twitter grumbling among the NASCAR industry about why the media focus on empty instead of full.

Yeah! Darn media narratives! So let’s just compare the 2017 crowd to … oh, wait.

Tracks don’t provide attendance figures. Pity.

If you want to highlight the positive stories, then provide the numbers that help tell them.

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Twice in the past seven races, Kyle Busch was leading when the final caution flag flew, and in another race, he had the strongest car until the final stage.

Will his fortunes change at Kansas, where he enters as the defending race winner and with four consecutive top fives at the 1.5-mile oval?

Hard to say. But you can count on at least one person to keep picking Busch until the No. 18 wins.

Dustin Long contributed to this report from Talladega.

Ryan Preece leaving NASCAR future ‘up to fate’ and his own talent

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This is it.

Just 250 laps.

A track in Iowa.

The second half of a two-race gamble on himself that Ryan Preece has spent 20 years investing in since his days at a quarter-midget track in Meriden, Connecticut.

The 26-year-old driver is three days away from a race that could determine if he has any future at NASCAR’s highest levels.

The biggest race of Preece’s career comes in Saturday night’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway (3:30 p.m., NBC), a race where there will be no Cup drivers to keep him out of the spotlight.

He’s been on this stage before, though. He competed in this race against many of the same drivers last year, but in nowhere near the equipment provided by Joe Gibbs Racing’s No 20 Toyota. That’s why his presence in the Xfinity race two weeks ago at New Hampshire and his second-place finish may have taken some off guard.

“At a national level with Xfinity, there’s still probably some people who still don’t know I ran last year,” says Preece, who ran in all 33 Xfinity races in 2016 with JD Motorsports.

A second-generation driver, Preece rose through the ranks of modifieds and late models in the Northeast, winning numerous series and track championships and becoming the youngest champion of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in 2013. He has 17 wins in the series since 2007.

He eventually got a taste of the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series with underfunded teams the last three years.

But after his year with JD Motorsports, mostly spent in the back half of the field, Preece didn’t want another stagnant season. He didn’t want a 10th-place finish at Darlington to be his ceiling.

Ryan Preece during practice for the Xfinity Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Getty Images).

He’s relied on Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on what he should do.

“(Newman) said ‘If you’re not having fun, why do it?’” Preece recalls. “ ‘If you’re not doing what you want to be doing, why do that?’ I said ‘You’re right.’ I want to win, and I feel I wasn’t going to be able to at that point in time.”

Preece chose to return to his home in modified racing.

There, he knew he was good. There, he knew he could be at peace and win at the same time.

“I learned that I’m just not somebody who is just going to settle, to just be there” Preece says. “I’m not about being just part of the show. I want to show everybody, more prove to myself that I can do this. Not that I don’t think I can, but I want to show everybody else too. I feel like I need that opportunity and I finally got it (with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

While Newman’s words helped him come to a conclusion, Earnhardt encouraged him along a specific path.

“I said, ‘If you can get into a Gibbs car, get in a Gibbs car,” Earnhardt said. ” ‘That would be your best opportunity to win a race. That’s really the only way you’re going to be able to get people to take notice. I’m not saying it was my idea, but I think he made a great decision with what little money he had.”

“When opportunity doesn’t knock, you’ve got to knock the door down,” Preece says.

If Preece didn’t heed the words of Earnhardt, he listened to Kevin Manion.

During his one season with JD Motorsports, Preece lived in the race shop of the Kyle Busch Motorsports crew chief.

It was Manion who gave Preece the phone number of Steve deSouza, the executive vice president of Xfinity and development at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Kevin Manion gave me his number and said, ‘Hey, at least you can call. If he doesn’t call back, it’s no big deal, at least you can say you called’,” Preece says. “That’s really, to be honest with you, what got everything going because (deSouza) called me back that night. Obviously, it took sponsors to get me into the car and finish off the deal. Those phone calls are what really got me to this point.”

Preece said this three days removed from the best finish of his Xfinity career in 37 starts.

Driving the No. 20 Toyota usually piloted by Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin or Christopher Bell, Preece finished second at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece sits in the No. 20 MoHawk Northeast Inc. Toyota during practice for the Xfinity  Series Overton’s 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

It was a race that saw Preece lead two laps and finish runner-up to Kyle Busch.

But neither of those were the most fun part of the experience for Preece. That came with 10 laps left in Stage 1 as the race resumed after a caution and Preece restarting 16th on fresh tires.

Ten laps later, Preece finished the stage in second behind Kyle Larson.

“That’s what I like to do,” Preece said. “I’m used to on Friday and Saturday nights where we have what they call a handicap. You win your heat race and then you start 15th or whatever. I’m used to starting mid-pack and driving through the field and navigating through holes and keeping the car safe doing it. That was the most fun to me.”

Preece will get one more chance to show off his kind of fun in the Xfinity Series to anyone that’s paying attention.

With the backing of five sponsors who have supported his modified and late-model careers, Preece secured the race at New Hampshire. Three of those sponsors will be on his car this weekend in Iowa.

Preece says he hasn’t felt any more pressure to perform in these two races than he would in any at the modified level. Even if they could be his last real shot at NASCAR success.

“I knew what the value of those races could be, the risk that was being taken,” Preece says. “It’s funny, some people have even said after this point they thought what I was doing was pretty risky. They wouldn’t do it, it’s not the conventional way. I believe in myself, and I knew that if could get the right opportunity and be a part of something like that it could go exactly the way I felt it could go. I could have gone and blown up on Lap 5 and you still wouldn’t know who Ryan Preece is.”

But for at least one more race, Preece can force the spotlight on himself.

He seeks to make his name when it seems any noteworthy driver rising through NASCAR’s top three series hovers around the legal drinking age. But the 26-year-old believes his age is a benefit.

“One thing I know from personal experience is that I’ve gotten better and wiser with age and that’s something about our sport,” Preece says. “As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can keep going to the next level. You’re only going to get better as you get older.”

Even as the days tick down to his second start, Preece’s mind last week was focused on his full-time job. He drives a modified owned by Eddie and Connie Partridge that he takes care of himself.

Last Tuesday, he was in the middle of attaching panels to the car he drove to an eighth-place finish Friday night at Stafford Motor Speedway, located roughly 40 miles northeast of his hometown of Berlin, Connecticut.

Preece has taken it upon himself to prepare his modifieds since 2011 when he parted ways with a team after only three races.

It’s a work ethic Preece aspired to after witnessing one of his heroes, the late sprint car driver Dave Steele, from a distance. As a kid still driving in midgets, Preece watched Steele work on his car following a race at the Speedrome in Indianapolis.

“He won that night of course,” Preece recalls. “He had his lap top plugged into the whole system and from that day on he made me want to be like him. …  I watched him work on his race car and really, he didn’t have many guys with him. From what I remember it was only two or three of them. It was a memory for me and kind of what set the tone for who I want to be and how I want to be.”

Now Preece is waiting to see if the combination of his work ethic and a gamble on himself will pay off following his Iowa venture.

But Preece is leaving his NASCAR fortunes “up to fate.”

“That will tell us if I was meant to do this or not at a bigger level,” Preece says. “My goal is to go out there and show the world what I feel I can do and that’s hopefully winning races at this level.”

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Xfinity crew chief Chris Gabehart penalized $5,000 for loose lug nut at Indy

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NASCAR has issued one penalty resulting from last weekend’s races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chris Gabehart, crew chief for the No. 20 Xfinity Series car of Joe Gibbs Racing, was fined $5,000 on Wednesday.

Gabehart was penalized for violating Sections 10.4 and 10.9 of the NASCAR Rule Book covering Tires and Wheels: Lug nut(s) not properly installed at the conclusion of the Lilly Diabetes 250.

There were no other penalties related to last weekend’s Xfinity or NASCAR Cup races in Indianapolis or the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway.

Richard Childress Racing to announce plans for a third Cup team ‘at a later date’

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With Paul Menard and his family’s home improvement chain sponsorship on the move to Wood Brothers Racing for 2018, Richard Childress Racing has a major funding gap to address.

Menards has adorned the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR for seven consecutive Cup seasons and is among the last full-season sponsors in NASCAR’s premier series. It assuredly is the most lucrative of RCR’s sponsorships.

Though the team is committed to fielding Chevys for Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon next season, the impending departure of Menard leaves questions about whether RCR will remain a three-car team in 2018.

In a statement Wednesday morning, team chairman and CEO Richard Childress said the team “will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

Here’s the full statement from Childress:

Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.

Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.

We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.

 

Paul Menard will move to the Wood Brothers for 2018 season

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Paul Menard will join Wood Brothers Racing next season, the team announced Wednesday. He will replace Ryan Blaney, who will move after this season to run a third Cup car for Team Penske.

Menards will sponsor the car in 22 races. Additional sponsorship, including plans for longtime partner Motorcraft/Quick Lane, will be announced later. The technical alliance between Team Penske and the Wood Brothers will continue. Greg Erwin will serve as Menard’s crew chief, car owner Eddie Wood confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s fantastic to have the ability to continue to race in the highest level of motorsports full time and something we look forward to doing with Paul for years to come,” Wood said in a statement. “I know this will allow us to continue to perform as an organization and will give Paul a great opportunity to go out there and compete for wins. Paul is not only a great driver with a lot of experience in the Cup Series, but he’s great with partners, which is a big part of what we do these days. We are looking forward to finishing out this season with Ryan (Blaney), going for more wins and maybe even a championship, and continuing that with Paul in 2018.”

Said Menard: “I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do. I’m looking forward to working with the team, working with Roush Yates, Ford Performance and Team Penske to see what we can do. Ryan (Blaney) has done a fantastic job and is a constant threat to run up front. Hopefully, we can do the same thing and keep the momentum going into 2018 and beyond.”

Also, Menard will run a handful of Xfinity races for Team Penske next year.

Menard had been with Richard Childress Racing since 2011, scoring his lone Cup victory — the 2011 Brickyard 400 — with the organization.

Menard’s best finish in the points with the organization was 14th in 2015. He is 23rd in the points with no wins, two top fives and three top-10 finishes this season.

The move marks the fourth organization the 36-year-old Menard has raced full-time for in his Cup career. He drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2007-08, Yates Racing from 2009-10 and Childress since.

Car owner Richard Childress issued a statement:

“Paul Menard and Menards, Inc. have had a partnership with RCR for seven years. Together, we have enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, including Paul’s emotional win at Indianapolis in 2011. He is a very talented driver and a good friend. Everyone at RCR wishes both Paul and Menards nothing but the best in the future.
“Our entire RCR organization is 100 percent focused on getting all three of our Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series programs in the playoffs this year, and bringing another Cup championship to RCR in 2017.
“We will be announcing our plans for a third Cup team and our overall 2018 team lineup at a later date.”

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