After early spin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earns first top five on a 1.5-mile track

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CONCORD, N.C. — With 14 laps left in the first stage of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose exiting Turn 4 while running seventh.

As a result, Kyle Busch ran into the back of his No. 17 Ford and sent it sliding towards the green of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s infield.

Just last year that development might have been the last one for Stenhouse in NASCAR’s longest race, with the infield grass possibly damaging the car enough to end his night.

But instead of grass, Stenhouse recovered from a slide through a portion of 88,000 square feet of synthetic turf that was installed last July.

Instead of an early exit to the garage, Stenhouse and his Roush Fenway Racing team ended the night with a fifth-place finish. It’s Roush’s first top five of the year and the first of Stenhouse’s Cup career on a 1.5-mile track.

The result comes after Stenhouse raced for the lead in the closing laps two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway before settling into a 11th-place finish.

“That’s nice. I felt like we gave one away at Kansas,” Stenhouse said. “I was just telling the guys it was pretty rewarding to finish this one off and get a top five. I was bummed that last caution came out (with eight laps left in race). Made us work a lot harder for that top five then I wanted. All in all we got it done.”

After Stenhouse’s Stage 1 spin, another caution came out with eight laps left in the stage and the No. 17 team elected to stay out and he placed 22nd. They then stayed out during the stage break and restarted ninth before eventually finishing Stage 2 in 15th.

“As the race went on to Lap 200 we were struggling with the balance and felt like I had something wrong with our car,” Stenhouse said. “Just didn’t seem to run down the straightaway, but once we got the car balanced a little better I could run through the corner better and our lap times got better.”

In the closing laps Stenhouse felt like he had “a top-three car on the long run, maybe a top-two car” as they matched the lap times of eventual race-winner Martin Truex Jr.

Stenhouse wasn’t the only Roush driver showing improvements. Teammate Ryan Newman also found himself in the top 10 during parts of the final stage. During the last caution, Newman’s team gambled on just two tires and restarted second. But he was overtaken and finished 16th.

“I was happy when I was running fifth and I looked up and Newman was I think seventh,” Stenhouse said. “That’s what you want. You want both cars running well. We’ve had one car run well and the other one not. So Kansas at the end of the race, here at the end of the race we were both up where we think we need to be”

Stenhouse knows Roush still has “some work to do.”

“Really happy to get up there and contend with that caliber of cars two mile-and-half races in a row. We got to make sure we keep this momentum going and try to carry that through the summer.”