Despite struggles, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. advances in playoffs

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DOVER, Delaware — After multiple brushes with the wall and penalties in the opening round of the playoffs, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. found a way to advance.

Barely.

His emotion after Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway was relief mixed with the feeling that he and his team had not performed well in the first three races of the playoffs.

Still, Stenhouse’s 19th-place finish Sunday was good enough to beat Ryan Newman by two points for the final transfer spot to the Round of 12.

“It was a battle,’’ said Stenhouse, who advanced despite an average finish of 19.7 in the opening round. “The first three races were definitely not near as good as what we wanted. We didn’t have fast enough cars, we made too many mistakes.’’

He and his team fought through their woes the past three weeks and were rewarded with some luck at Dover.

A key point came when the caution waved on Lap 88 after Jeffrey Earnhardt spun into the barrels at pit entrance, spilling sand.

Stenhouse was to have pitted that lap but by staying out he was one of five drivers on the lead lap who had yet to pit. That put him in position to score points when the first stage ended on Lap 120. Stenhouse finished fourth in that stage, scoring seven points.

“Great strategy and it paid off,’’ said Stenhouse, who had not scored stage points in the previous six races. “We were able to get (seven) stage points and really that was the turning point of our day and gave us a lot of buffer.’’

Without those seven points, he wouldn’t have advanced in the playoffs.

Crew chief Brian Pattie said that with Stenhouse’s car not fast, it made sense to stay out as long as possible while “just hoping you weren’t the caution.

“I didn’t want to pit while I was on the lead lap. I didn’t want to pit while I was (in position for the free pass). It was just an educated guess.’’

Now, Stenhouse heads into a round that includes Talladega. He’s won the past two restrictor-plate races and suddenly becomes one to watch to advance to the Round of 8.

“Definitely, Talladega is our best track to grab a win,’’ Stenhouse said of the Oct. 15 race. “We knew coming into Dover that we probably didn’t have a car capable of winning. But Talladega, we feel confident going in that we’ve got that car. We’ve been working hard on all of our other programs, we just can’t get them up to speed. It’s been a struggle. We’ll see how it all plays out.’’

Stenhouse begins the next round in the final transfer spot. He holds a two-point lead on Ryan Blaney, a four-point lead on Chase Elliott, a five-point edge on Matt Kenseth and a seven-point lead on Jamie McMurray heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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