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.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).

Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. 

“They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.