BRISTOL, Tenn. — Tonight’s Cup race on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway presents a key two-race stretch for teams in need of good results a third of the way through the regular season.
Bristol and next weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway can be “opportunity races” for teams that are either behind or have not had the best of results this year.
Among those drivers is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished second in this race a year ago.
JTG Daugherty Racing downsized from two teams to a one-team operation this year. Stenhouse enters Sunday night’s race 28th in the standings. He has one top-20 finish this year, a 10th-place result at Auto Club Speedway. Stenhouse’s average finish in the other seven races is 28.6.
Stenhouse, whose two career Cup wins have come at Daytona and Talladega, says there’s “a sense of urgency and excitement in the next two weeks for his team.”
“Definitely looking forward to these two weeks, knowing that I feel like we’ve got a really good shot to win here or next weekend,” said Stenhouse, who starts 16th. “We’ve really struggled on the short track races so far this year. I feel like we’ve learned a lot over the Phoenix, Richmond, and Martinsville, but you never know until you go back to another short track.
“So, for us, we’re trying to gather as much data as we can as a single-car team, and I’m trying to give as much feedback as I can to kind of speed our process up of learning. I feel like we’ve done a good job of that, it’s just obviously the bigger teams are still quicker to get that information figured out.”
Justin Haley starts sixth and Ty Dillon starts seventh tonight. Both have dirt backgrounds. Haley ran on the dirt at Bristol in a dirt modified a couple of weeks ago. Haley, who is 23rd in the points, seeks his first top 10 of the season. Dillon, who is 25th in points, also seeks his first top 10 of the year.
Cole Custer, who starts on the pole for tonight’s race despite his limited dirt background, also can use a turnaround. While this event might not be viewed as his best chance for a strong finish, he’s had some good runs, if not the finishes this year.
The result is he enters this race 24th in the points.
“We’ve been pretty solid at places, we’ve just had a few things that have really hurt us points-wise,” he said.
Custer can recite a litany of issues the team has had this year. Fueling problems at Daytona. Blown engine at Las Vegas. Eliminated in the 13-car crash at Atlanta. Penalty for an uncontrolled tire that derailed a strong run at Martinsville.
“I think we had a fast car at Martinsville last weekend, so it’s just a matter of carrying that momentum,” Custer said after winning his first career Cup pole. “We know this is kind of a wildcard race. There’s no reason why we can’t go out there and just have a good day and keep the momentum rolling.”