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.”