In the opening 10 races, the No. 47 Chevrolet had just two finishes higher than 27th — 10th at Auto Club Speedway and 21st at Las Vegas.
That miserable stretch was alleviated with a second-place finish at Dover, his best finish since finishing sixth at Nashville in June 2021.
“We needed it bad,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve had race cars and better race cars than I feel like what we’ve shown. Feels like all of our fast races we’ve had issues. Getting crashed at the superspeedways, we’ve had some engine issues, but all in all, man, it was a solid day to put all this together.”
Stenhouse had the seventh-best average running position (8.87) in a race that was postponed to Monday when rain washed out Sunday’s event after 78 laps were completed. Stenhouse entered Dover ranked 24th in average running position at 20.72.
“Our season, I feel like, feels worse than what it is just because our short-track program — we’ve had three short tracks and we’ve been really bad at those,” said Stenhouse, who finished 28th at Richmond, 27th at Martinsville and 29th on Bristol Dirt. “We’re trying to come up with a new philosophy there, but we were excited to come to Dover. It’s always been a decent track for us, and everything kind of played out right there where we got cautions at the right time and kept our track position, had good pit stops. So all that was kind of going into our favor.
“I was hoping we were going to get into a little bit more lapped traffic and stay green from when we went back to green after that stage. But all in all, it was a fun day for us.”
Stenhouse has shown speed at times this season, particularly at in superspeedway racing. He was running third in the Daytona 500 before contact from Brad Keselowski sent him into the wall and was leading at Atlanta when a right-rear tire failed, causing him to crash and ending his race early.
Mechanical failures have bitten the team too, including an engine failure in practice at Phoenix, a drivetrain failure at Circuit of the Americas. Those frustrations, he said, made for a mentally challenging start to the year.
“I mean you can only hang your hat on so much as far as, ‘hey we got fast race cars and got nothing to show for it,'” Stenhouse said. “You can only do that so many times. We’ve been working really hard and taking the information we can get and try and put together good races.”
Finally, Stenhouse was able to earn a result worthy of actually celebrating. The team entered with hopes of a top-15 finish, mindful to not make any greedy wishes.
“Car was a lot of fun to drive,” Stenhouse said. “It was tough. The cars are tough to drive and tough in traffic, but we were able to move around a lot more than I thought we would be coming into this race this weekend. I had a lot of fun.
“Hopefully this is the start of putting everything together. We’ve got a little bit new philosophy coming into this weekend and hopefully that’ll pay dividends as we go forward and the shop guys definitely needed this.”
Still, there was a tinge of disappointment from Stenhouse, who is in the midst of his 10th full-time Cup season. Without a win, he sits 27th in points and remains well outside of any realistic chance to make the playoffs via points.
“No doubt you’ve got to win, and that’s why you’re a little frustrated, finishing second knowing that one spot could really flip your season completely upside down in a good way,” Stenhouse said. “We’ll still battle for that. (Crew chief) Brian Pattie is calling races to make sure we try and get that win that we need.”
Stenhouse’s plans for 2023 remain undetermined. JTG Daugherty Racing condensed to one car at the conclusion of the 2021 season, closing the doors on the unchartered No. 37 team it previously fielded with driver Ryan Preece.
“We’re working on it with (team co-owner) Tad (Geschickter),” Stenhouse said of his future plans. “Tad’s always working hard on the sponsorship side of things and once he gets all that secured, then we’ll move forward with my deal. But I’m having, really, a lot of fun here and everybody’s working hard. You can look at the start of the season and be bummed, but I feel like we’ve got a lot of good things going and hopefully this is the start of it.”