Stenhouse bullish on low-downforce package at Darlington

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Throwback paint schemes will provide a visual change from the norm in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway. But the racing also stands to be markedly different.

For the past two seasons at Darlington, Cup cars have raced with the high-downforce, 550-horsepower rules package. This time, they’ll race with the low-downforce, 750-horsepower rules package.

Warm conditions forecasted for race day add another degree of difficulty for drivers on an already difficult track.

Not that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. minds.

“The car is going to slide around a lot,” the JTG Daugherty Racing driver predicted in a Wednesday teleconference. “You’re going to have a lot of power. I think you’re going to see cars slide a lot, especially off of Turn 2. Turn 2 is always tricky. But with more horsepower and less downforce, it’s definitely going to be on edge.

“But I think that’s what the drivers want. That’s what we like to see. And I think it’s going to create good racing. I think you’re going to have cars that will be really good on the short run and then some that will be really good on the long run. And it will be fun to see how that plays out along with different lines, especially in Turns 3 and 4. Some can run the bottom the whole time and others have got to get up on the fence.”

Darlington is setting up as an important race for Stenhouse, who’s coming off back-to-back finishes outside the top 30 – a big drop from his average finish of 13.1 during the first nine races (best finish of second, Bristol Dirt).

Last week at Kansas Speedway, Stenhouse fell out of the top 16 in the Cup playoff standings after being involved in two wrecks within the final 15 laps.

The latter one with 10 laps to go saw him and teammate Ryan Preece eliminated by a spinning Christopher Bell. Credited with 34th place, Stenhouse slipped to 18th in the playoff standings at 18 points below the cutline.

Stenhouse will try to turn things around at one of his worst tracks. In 10 Darlington Cup starts, he’s never finished better than 12th and never led a single lap.

Last May at Darlington, Stenhouse wrecked on the opening lap of the Cup Series’ first race back from a two-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few days later, he finished 25th after an early accident. Later in September, he finished 19th in the Southern 500.

“On the Xfinity side, I felt like we were pretty good for a couple of races and then on the Cup side, we’ve been decent in a couple of races, but overall, it hasn’t been a great track for us,” Stenhouse said of his Darlington woes. “Obviously last year, the first race was a disaster. The second race was kind of a disaster with some mechanical issues going on that we really couldn’t overcome.

“…Switching to the low downforce package for this race, looking back at some of the race notes we have, I think in 2018 we had this package and finished 12th and had a good run. So, (I’m) looking back on those notes and making sure we’re looking at the right things going into this weekend.

“But it’s definitely been a tough two weeks for us. We got off to a strong start. I’m looking forward to having an opportunity back going in the right direction for us this weekend.”