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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.

Richard Petty Motorsports following the footsteps of Furniture Row

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WELCOME, N.C. – All of the noise at Richard Petty Motorsports’ cozy new home on a recent Friday afternoon was coming from behind a short wall in the corner.

Several No. 43 cars were parked on the shop floor in various states of inactivity and incompletion, but the “Fusion” on the front bumper betrayed they were last year’s models.

Drew Blickensderfer, RPM’s crew chief, didn’t seem concerned as he cast a smile toward the source of the noise – a specialized fabrication department that could be the key to solving a championship-tested equation.

Less space and fewer people can equal better results.

“We have shrank quite a bit,” Blickensderfer said. “Right now, we’re bare bones, but we have the people we need to go racing and performance-wise to go racing.

“To grow into a Furniture Row, or a model similar to that, we need to get that (fabrication department) up and running.”

As RPM makes significant structural changes – switching to Chevrolet, aligning with Richard Childress Racing, shuttering its body-hanging staff – no one is expecting a quantum leap in performance for a team that finished 24th in the 2017 owner standings.

But an improvement to a top-20 car with long-term winning potential is expected, and the model is the reigning team in NASCAR’s premier series.

In winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has excelled by taking Joe Gibbs Racing chassis and optimizing the accompanying suspension parts and pieces through precision engineering and manufacturing.

RPM hopes to mirror the process through its reorganized fab department, which will have the same equipment from its previous home but with a more laser-targeted focus.

“If we can get that up and running, we’d be better off in the long run,” Blickensderfer said. “And that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to take a car from Richard Childress Racing and develop and work on it and ultimately have a better product for Sunday.”

RPM has traversed various paths toward competitiveness in recent seasons.

In 2014, the team was receiving chassis from Roush Fenway Racing but hanging its own bodies when it made the playoffs with Aric Almirola via a win at Daytona International Speedway. In 2015, RPM added chassis building to its workload but stumbled. Last year, it returned to hanging bodies on chassis supplied by Roush Fenway.

This year, RPM relocated from a 65,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville to a 20,000-square-foot space adjacent to RCR, which will deliver cars from its base just down the hill.

On arrival at RPM, all that is needed is interior (such as driver’s seat, steering wheel and column, air boxes and gear coolers) and mechanical work.

“Basically, it comes as a shell, the chassis with a body on it,” Blickensderfer said. “We do the wiring, the plumbing, the suspension parts, front and rear. Basically, all the parts you would bolt on.”

The change has allowed RPM to run leaner because there’s less work to be done on bodies. After employing about 80 last year (with 60 working on cars), RPM will have about 40 employees in 2018 with roughly 25 working on cars (about a half-dozen of those crew members will stay in the shop for assembly while the team is on the road, and RCR will supply the team’s pit crew).

The staff reduction will allow RPM to reallocate some funding toward R&D (after making zero trips to a wind tunnel last year).

Blickensderfer said the alliance with RCR should provide an aerodynamic foundation that will allow fine-tuning to have a greater impact. Last year, RPM “did a really good job of putting stuff that drove well under our race cars” but still faced the aerodynamic limitations of the Roush chassis.

“The thing that really creates speed on cars is the body and aero,” Blickensderfer said. “You can have the wrong springs in your car and mess up the other stuff a little bit, and you’d still be fast, at least in portions of the race. If you get all the springs right, and your aero is terrible, you still might be only a 20th-place car. That’s just the reality of it. The thing that is the most expensive to develop, create and implement is the aero stuff.

“So that’s why the big teams, they have all the wind tunnel data, and you’re racing against teams that are just developing faster than you can even produce cars. That’s why you’ve got to jump on board with them to get some of their information, or you’re going to be watching them coming behind you ready to lap you.”

With consolidation among chassis and engine builders an overarching trend in NASCAR for the past decade, alliances have become more prevalent. Besides RPM, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty also have similar arrangements.

But few have made it work as well as Furniture Row, which made the championship round in 2015 through an RCR alliance before switching to JGR and Toyota the next season. Relying on the setups and strategies of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex consistently outran JGR’s fleet of four Camrys in 2017 with a series-high eight victories and 19 stage wins – despite a few hundred fewer employees working at its Denver location.

“You step back and say, ‘How come no one else has been successful in that model?’ and you look at what Furniture Row has done with their model,” Blickensderfer said. “They still do some stuff in-house. So we pay RCR for an engineering agreement and to get cars from them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop ourselves. So you’d only be better off if you get extra money, you can start developing things yourself.

“Get all (the alliance team’s) information. Dump yours on top of it. You can’t help but get better in the long run that way. That’s what Cole and those guys have done. That’s the model that I would think the JTGs, the RPMs, the Germains, companies of this size, that’s what we need to strive to do is use that model to build up into that next level of race team.”

Though RPM will benefit from RCR’s aerodynamic R&D and assembly line capability, some of the information will be transferred the other way, too.

“They’re incorporating some of the stuff we had in our race cars into theirs that they think is going to make them better,” Blickensderfer said. “Before they put the body on it, we can change the brake system and do what we want, which eventually they’re going to do. And that saves us both time to make sure we have the best product.”

RPM took delivery of its first Camaro late last week for the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its hauler will be on the road Jan. 26 to Nevada, leaving about a week to finish preparing and setting up the car.

“That’s not all that tight of a timeframe,” Blickensderfer said. “What will happen in the future when we start racing is we’ll get a car two to three weeks before the event, and when we come in on a Monday morning after an event, the next week’s car is on the setup plate ready to go, so there’s only about a day’s worth of work we have to do to it.”

RPM has put its surface plates and other tools in cold storage, keeping open the option to revert to hanging bodies. But with the sponsorship landscape scarce, it makes such autonomy more difficult.

“If you could do everything yourself, you’d be better off, because then nobody gets your information,” Blickensderfer said. “But if (RCR) can take the money they’re developing cars with, and we can take the money we’re getting to develop cars and combine it, I think we all end up better. When there is less money in the pot to grab, the more of us that can throw the money in, the better we’ll be.”

Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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