Coming off a season of highs and lows, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing focused on consistency entering the 2021 season.
Going into Monday’s dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, that focus had paid off for Stenhouse with four consecutive top-15 finishes.
But on Monday, Stenhouse – one of the drivers in the field with more extensive dirt experience – had his best performance of the season.
Improving as the race went on, he claimed a second-place finish in overtime after capitalizing on both Martin Truex Jr.‘s tire failure and Denny Hamlin’s ill-fated attempt to pass eventual winner Joey Logano on the outside.
“Coming into the Bristol dirt event, I felt like I was going to be comfortable on the racetrack,” Stenhouse said afterwards. “But I felt like these are the best drivers out there. They were going to adapt, their teams were going to adapt, bring good race cars, as well. I didn’t want to put too much emphasis on ‘Hey, we have to go win.’
“We methodically worked our way throughout this race of getting our race car better, not freaking out early in the race, knowing that the track conditions were going to change, and probably come around to the balance of our race car. We did that. Got our first top five, top 10 of the year. Trying to keep that momentum going into an off-weekend and start back fresh when we get going again.”
Stenhouse’s first top-five finish since a runner-up last June at Talladega moved him from 17th to 14th in the playoff standings (12 points above 17th-place Chris Buescher).
Even bigger, Stenhouse banked his first stage points of the season on Monday. Finishes of ninth in the first stage and sixth in the second stage earned him seven additional points.
If he is unable to win in the regular season, those points could be critical in a “bubble battle” during the final weeks.
But at the season’s first break, Stenhouse and his No. 47 team can feel good about what they’ve been able to do.
“We’re just trying to even things out, take the speed of our race cars, make sure we execute when we’re at the racetrack, when we’re in the shop, just being prepared,” he said. “That’s starting with me, the things I do behind the wheel, the things I do off the racetrack preparing, going into the weekend, just getting that mindset going into each race that it’s one race at a time.
“We didn’t get off to the hottest start. We struggled a little bit at the (Daytona) 500. Had a couple mistakes that cost us at the road courses. Really, other than that, we’ve stuck to our game plan and done everything that we’ve wanted to do and accomplish every week.”
How much did dirt experience matter?
Many Cup drivers entered Monday with some sort of dirt experience, either gained very recently or in the distant or not-too-distant past.
There was a group of drivers with a deeper dirt background – drivers like Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and the aforementioned Stenhouse.
Naturally, the pre-race favorites came from here.
But at day’s end, it was those with lesser experience who stood tall.
Joey Logano, Monday’s winner, ran the previous week’s Bristol Dirt Nationals in a modified. He made his modified debut only back in February. Prior to then, his dirt experience consisted of two starts in the former Prelude to the Dream late model race at Eldora Speedway.
Third-place finisher Denny Hamlin had only run dirt in karts as a child and then in a few late model races over a decade ago.
Fourth-place finisher Daniel Suarez turned his first proper laps on dirt just days before the Bristol weekend.
Two spots behind him in sixth was William Byron, who famously cut his teeth in the virtual world – not dirt or pavement.
Contrast that to the mixed results of those with deeper dirt experience.
Stenhouse was steady in his run to second place, while Reddick came on late to finish seventh. But others in the group weren’t as fortunate.
Briscoe finished 20th after enduring two separate incidents. One of them came on Lap 48, when he was run into the wall by teammate Kevin Harvick as Harvick tried to dodge a spinning Ryan Newman.
Austin Dillon, who won three races in a 604 Late Model during the Bristol Dirt Nationals, was never a factor on Monday and finished 21st. “Just didn’t have what we needed,” he said afterwards on social media.
Then there was Larson and Bell, whose days went south on Lap 53 after Bell spun high off Turn 2 and collected Larson and Ross Chastain. Bell and Chastain were eliminated, while Larson finished 28th in a heavily damaged car.
Having a lot of dirt experience to draw upon certainly wasn’t going to hurt these drivers’ chances of winning on Monday.
But considering Bristol’s treacherous nature no matter the surface, as well as the uniqueness of handling a 3,400-pound Cup car on dirt, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that their fortunes varied so much.
Dirt double dashed for MTJ
Another driver who unexpectedly ran strong on the dirt at Bristol was Martin Truex Jr.
With no wins and only two top-five finishes there in his Cup career, Truex has never really solved “The World’s Fastest Half-Mile” in its normal, concrete form.
But the 2017 Cup champion excelled on the Bluff City Red Tennessee Clay that was put down this weekend. Driving a Kyle Busch Motorsports entry, Truex rolled to his first career Camping World Truck Series win in Monday’s undercard.
He continued that performance in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota during the Cup main event. He won the opening stage and led a race-high 126 laps during the first half of the 250-lap race.
Suarez bumped him out of the top spot at Lap 135, but Truex stayed in the hunt for the win all the way up to overtime.
He lined up third for the single-file restart that settled the race. But as the field entered Turn 1, he suffered a tire failure and went up the track. He would finish 19th.
After the race, Truex’s crew chief, James Small, tweeted a picture of the tire with a short message that summed it up.
Well f…….. 🤦♂️ pic.twitter.com/NZWS19ATcS
— James Small (@james_small) March 30, 2021
As for Truex himself, he looked at the big picture in his own tweet: “It was going good until those last two laps. Just bad luck. Awesome job by our whole team though.
“We had a great shot and that’s definitely more than we expected coming into this.”
Already in the playoffs with his Phoenix win, Truex is up to six playoff points after Monday – equal with Miami winner Byron and Atlanta winner Ryan Blaney.
Larson, the winner at Las Vegas, leads all drivers with eight playoff points, followed by Logano’s seven.
First top five since 2019 for Newman
Newman appeared to be in trouble during the aforementioned incident at Lap 48, where contact from behind by Byron sent him spinning on the backstretch.
But while the incident hurt several other drivers, Newman escaped with little damage. He recovered to score a combined nine stage points, then went from seventh at the overtime restart to finish fifth.
It was Newman’s first top-five finish since losing to Ryan Blaney by .007 of a second in the 2019 playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.
“That was fun, no doubt,” Newman said after the race. “It was a good run for our Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang and a great team effort the entire week. I am really proud of the effort and a lot of guys got to see a lot more and experience a lot more.
“We got turned around there from a racing accident in Turn 2 with (Byron) and had to fight back and did. We just didn’t make it all the way back to the front. We had a pretty good car.
“I would have liked to see what we would have done with some track position, but I am sure everyone else would say the same thing.”