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For first time in career, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. believes he can win Daytona 500

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Winning a Cup race for the first time can do a lot to help a driver’s confidence.

Having your first two Cup wins come at restrictor-plate tracks can do wonders for your confidence in the “Great American Race.”

That’s the case for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver broke through in 2017 after four years of trying to get that elusive first Cup win. It came in the May race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Two months later, the No. 17 Ford was back in Victory Lane after the July race at Daytona after leading 17 laps, Stenhouse’s first laps led at the 2.5-mile track.

As a result, the 30-year-old driver got to experience his first NASCAR Media Tour without having to answer questions about why he hadn’t won yet.

“Not looking for our first win is nice, not having that riding on your back,” Stenhouse said Tuesday. “Now it’s what other race tracks are we gonna win at? I definitely want to win at other race tracks.”

But the first track the Cup Series visits in 2018 is the last one Stenhouse found victory at. His win under the lights in Daytona last year has completely changed his mindset ahead of the 60th Daytona 500.

“Going into the 500 I feel a lot more confident than I ever have,” Stenhouse said. “I always went into the 500 thinking, ‘Hey, let’s get off to a good start. Let’s have a good points race.’ I never thought about winning the 500. I just thought that I was competing in it and if I won that was cool, but I didn’t really feel I had the confidence that we could. After last season, I feel like going in that is the only goal that we have when we go down there is to win and not just to get a good finish out of it.”

Stenhouse was a major part of Ford’s sweep of the four restrictor-plate races last season. Kurt Busch claimed the Daytona 500 and Brad Keselowski won the fall race at Talladega.

“I think Doug (Yates) builds us great horsepower at those speedway events,” Stenhouse said. “I think each one of the Ford programs … I know you have somebody like Tony Gibson at Stewart-Haas, we’ve got Jimmy Fennig – the superspeedways are some of their bread and butter that they really enjoy working on and tuning those race cars.  It was obviously a huge benefit for us at Roush Fenway Racing, putting us in the playoffs and giving us those opportunities to go win.

“Now, the focus that we put in on those, I think, is also what’s gonna help us hopefully improve on our other areas because we saw that putting one person really focused on our speedway program could really lift it fairly quick, so we’re working on all that.”

Prior to last season, Stenhouse had one top five in nine Daytona starts and two top fives in seven Talladega starts. His DNFs in the Daytona 500 and the fall Talladega race from wrecks were his first at each track.

Until the checkered flag drops on the 500 on Feb. 18, the race is the “No. 1 priority” for the No. 17 team.

But Stenhouse is eager for the organization test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the end of the month. Then he’ll have a better measurement of where his team stands going into the post-Daytona schedule.

“We’ve got a new car that we’re taking out there and we’ve got other cars to kind of judge ourselves off of,” Stenhouse said. “I know (Kyle) Larson is gonna be out there, so some of those cars that were fast on the mile-and-a-half race tracks last year will be out there testing and I’m anxious to kind of see how we stack up with our new car.”

Recently, Larson expressed his desire to win the Chili Bowl Nationals more than the Daytona 500. 

Stenhouse, like Larson, rose through the racing ranks on dirt. Stenhouse explained the significance of the midget event in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“Kyle and I have been trying to win the Chili Bowl a lot longer than we’ve ever thought about winning the Daytona 500,” Stenhouse said. “I think us growing up racing sprint cars, him in California and me in Mississippi,  I raced go karts in the same building that we race the Chili Bowl in and that’s just something that we’ve always strived for and not until as of recent history or recent events that we’ve gotten opportunities to even go compete in the Daytona 500.

“In the country I would say the Daytona 500 is the biggest …  They’re both huge races.  I want to win the Daytona 500 really, really bad.  I want to win the Chili Bowl bad too, but I’m sure if you asked Larson today which one he’s looking forward to I’m sure he’s looking to the 500.

“The Chili Bowl is over.”

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Podcast: Front Row Motorsports explains how it improves with smaller budget, unique sponsor deals

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Running a Cup Series team is not a cheap endeavor.

One person who knows this is Jerry Freeze, the general manager of Front Row Motorsports.

Owned by Bob Jenkins, the two-car team runs the No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 38 of David Ragan and has a technical partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.

Freeze sat down with Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss how FRM works with smaller budgets and its unique business-to-business sponsorship deals through Jenkins’ trucking company, MDS Transport, and restaurant business, Charter Foods.

Freeze calls Love’s Travel Shops, which sponsors half the races on McDowell’s car, a “textbook example” of such a deal. Their partnership began in 2013.

“Bob owns a trucking company with about 300 over the road truck on the road,” Freeze said. “They’ve got to get fuel somewhere. That’s kind of how the Love’s Travel Shop deal started for us.”

Freeze describes it as a “slightly smaller scale” version of the relationship between Team Penske and Shell.

Unlike larger teams, Front Row doesn’t yet have an optical scanning station at its shop like the one cars are inspected with at the track.

“We went into it thinking, ‘We’ll never need to have one of those, NASCAR’s got one, we can go over there whenever we want,'” Freeze said.

The team also relies on the scanner located at Roush Fenway Racing. But it’s a challenge to take cars to Roush, with its shop in Concord, North Carolina, about an hour away from Front Row’s in Statesville.

Buying its own scanner is beginning to look like a “necessary evil” for Freeze, who said he’s heard it would cost $300,000.

“I think if you’re really going to try to optimize the car through each step of what you do, that might be the way to go,” Freeze said.

When it comes to becoming more competitive, Freeze and Jenkins have been encouraged to invest more resources and money into the team by moves NASCAR has made to lower costs, including requiring teams to use engines in multiple races, spec radiators and the controversial common pit guns.

“It put it in a place where, yeah, it’s still pretty tough for Front Row to get to, but it’s not as high as it use to be,” Freeze said of the engine rule. “With spec radiators, we were spending $9,000 for radiator in the past. Now a spec radiator is, I don’t know, a third of that.”

Freeze also addressed the future of one of the team’s three charters, which is leased to TriStar Motorsports this season.

“You can’t do that forever with the way the rules are set up,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to make a decision, either we’ve got to operate (it) ourselves or maybe we sell it to TriStar some day, I don’t know. … Even though we weren’t in a position to run three cars and we’re still not today, it’s kind of nice to have in your pocket just in case something came along that was just phenomenal and we needed one.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast. It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

August Cup race at Michigan to be called Consumers Energy 400

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The Aug. 12 Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway will be sponsored by Consumers Energy as part of a multi-year deal, the track announced Thursday.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest energy provider, providing natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents.

The company takes over for Pure Michigan, which sponsored the race from 2011-17.

“We are excited to expand our collaborative relationship with Consumers Energy,” said track president Rick Brenner in a press release. “We strive to work with Michigan-based companies like Consumers Energy who continue to give back to the community. We are looking forward to working together to provide our guests an awesome experience each August for many years to come.”

Consumers Energy will also sponsor the inaugural MIS Charity Dinner on June 9 and the track’s 50 Years of Racing Exhibit in the fan plaza for both of the track’s race weekends.

The MIS Charity Dinner, which benefits the Henry Ford Allegiance Health Foundation Patient Immediate Needs Fund and the MIS Cares Fund, will feature a strolling dinner, dessert and drink stations, live and silent auctions, music, a photo booth and more. The event will also feature a question and answer session with Dale Inman, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood.

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Weekend schedule at Richmond for Cup, Xfinity

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NASCAR heads to its third short-track race of the season this weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Kyle Larson won the Cup race at Richmond last fall and Joey Logano won there last April.

Here is this weekend’s schedule at Richmond:

(All times Eastern)

FRIDAY, APRIL 20

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8 a.m. – 9 p.m. — Cup garage open

8 – 8:45 a.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)

9:40 – 10:25 a.m. — Final Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

4:05 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1)

5:10 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

5:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1, MRN)

6:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

7 p.m. — ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity race; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

1 p.m. — Cup garage opens

4:30 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

5:50 p.m. — Driver introductions

6:30 p.m. — Toyota Owners 400 Cup race; 400 laps/300 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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NASCAR America: Short tracks are Clint Bowyer’s favorites

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It was a question that needed to be asked, although the answer was not a surprise to anyone. What is Clint Bowyer’s favorite type of track?

“Short tracks are obviously my favorite,” Bowyer answered. “I think they’re probably everybody’s favorite. That’s what we grew up doing. That’s probably where we feel most comfortable.”

“I love back-to-back short track races because the drivers don’t have time to forget about who they’re mad at,” Steve Letarte interjected.

But Bowyer’s love of short tracks is not limited to Martinsville, where he snapped his long winless streak earlier this year. He is even more excited about coming to Richmond Raceway this week.

“I feel like Richmond is the perfect-sized race track.”

Bowyer went one step further, suggesting there is a way to add more tracks like Richmond to the schedule.

“I feel like, some of these mile-and-a-half tracks, we need to just use as parking lots and build Richmond in the infield,” Bowyer said.

For more of what Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about short track racing, watch the video above.