MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. emerged from his battered No. 17 car, stood on the door and with a giant smile, raised both arms above his head in victory.
Stenhouse didn’t win the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. That was Brad Keselowski, who was preparing to be interviewed in victory lane on the frontstretch.
Stenhouse finished 10th.
But as he jumped down from his car into the typical post-race madness, that didn’t matter to Stenhouse. He wanted to celebrate his best finish at Martinsville like it was the Cup win he still seeks.
“Going into today, we had hopes of a better Martinsville than normal, our normal is really bad here,” Stenhouse said. “This is our worst track by far on the circuit, has been since I got to Cup. This is huge momentum. This is almost like a win for us.”
In eight previous starts, Stenhouse’s best result was 15th in the fall 2014 race. Since then, he never finished better than 32nd.
And 70 laps into Sunday’s race, Stenhouse feared his “day was going to go about the normal way it does.”
After starting 24th, the Roush Fenway Racing driver was running in front of Paul Menard in the middle groove as they entered Turn 3. Menard then accidently made contact with Stenhouse, which turned him around and damaged his left-rear quarter panel.
(Menard and Stenhouse shook hands and hugged it out after the race.)
“We fought hard all day, got the car a little bit better,” said Stenhouse, who averaged a running spot of 19.6 during the 500-lap race. “Really good on long runs. I needed long runs. Those cautions there in the middle part of the race really stacked me up, and I lost a lot of spots. But once we got going, I was pretty good.”
After his accident, the biggest fight of Stenhouse’s day came near the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260. The fifth-year driver had been lapped by Kyle Busch, who was bearing down on Austin Dillon on the last lap.
Desperate to remain the first car a lap down before the scheduled caution, Stenhouse intended to give Busch “a nudge” to keep him from passing Dillon. His success looked like a last-lap pass for a race win.
Stenhouse’s fender sent Busch out of the groove, allowing him and Chase Elliott by, with Elliott winning the stage.
“It was hard as I could drive,” said Stenhouse, who added that he “wouldn’t ever make that” move in the pre-stage era. “I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap. That was a turning point in the race. If the 18 laps the 3 and then we’re stuck a lap down it could ruin our race. I drove as hard as I could and it paid off for us.”
It gave Stenhouse his second top 10 of the season – matching his career high through six races – and his second in three races. The first was a fourth-place finish at Phoenix that came after the No. 17 decided to stay out of the pits before the overtime finish.
“Definitely going to take some momentum,” Stenhouse said. “I think if you look at all our races back to Atlanta we’ve been really good. Had some misfortune, Vegas (finished 33rd), California last week (finished 22nd). But all in all we felt really good today.”
After a race at Martinsville, Stenhouse will take anything that feels good.
“It was nice to complete all 500 laps today and that was our goal coming in.”