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New Team, Old Love of Dirt Help Keep Stenhouse’s Fortunes Rising in Cup Series

Note: This continues a series of feature stories highlighting competitors in the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line event weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway July 1-5. Stories will appear on every Wednesday.

For the first time in his NASCAR career, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is strapping into a stock car that isn’t owned by Roush Fenway Racing and isn’t a Ford.

And his start to the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season has been strong.

Late last season, Stenhouse was released from Roush Fenway after 12 years, a tenure that included two NASCAR Xfinity Series championships and two NASCAR Cup Series victories.

The move sent Stenhouse to Chevrolet team JTG-Daugherty Racing, a mid-level, two-car team that has one win after 11 years in NASCAR’s premier series. It’s a welcome change of pace for Stenhouse.

“(It’s) a fresh start where I feel like everybody there believes that I can get the job done, they believe my feedback, and they believe in my crew chief Brian Pattie,” he said. “We brought (engineer) Mike Kelley over, who has been in my corner for a long time, as well. They listen to those guys. They’re busting their butts right now.

“Every day that I’ve been in the shop, they’ve been just digging to make sure we put the best cars on the racetrack that we can from the stable. It’ll be cool to have the team actually sit there and take my feedback and use it.”

The confidence of Stenhouse feeling like a team leader, working with second-year driver Ryan Preece and the familiarity of bringing Pattie and Kelley with him produced instant results.

Last month, Stenhouse soared to the top of the board at Daytona International Speedway and won the pole for the Daytona 500. It was the team’s third career pole and first since 2015, and it was also Stenhouse’s third career pole.

He backed up the No. 47 car’s speed by leading 24 laps in the season-opening race before finishing 20th. The following week in Las Vegas, the team used strategy on pit stops to find itself at the front of the field. Stenhouse led 30 laps and finished third.

It was the team’s best finish in almost a year.

“I really like what (owners Tad Geschickter, Jodi Geschickter and Brad Daugherty) and everybody has built there,” Stenhouse said. “I look at their progress over the course of their careers, and it keeps getting better and better. My biggest thing is that they’ve taken control of the chassis building and doing their own bodies. I feel like it’s really paid off.”

Stenhouse hopes this new partnership continues to help him flourish as a driver, and he hopes to broaden the horizons of JTG Daugherty Racing. One way he hopes to accomplish that is on dirt tracks.

Last fall, when contract negotiations began, Stenhouse said he made it clear that dirt racing could not be off the table. When the deal was signed, Stenhouse even invited new owner Tad Geschickter to some dirt tracks to see his sprint car team in action.

Stenhouse said Geschickter approves of Stenhouse running dirt if doesn’t conflict with his Cup Series obligations.

“He knows how much I love it,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve talked about it. I feel like when I ran in the Xfinity Series, I ran 25-30 times a year. I don’t feel like it hurt my on-track performance. If anything, I feel like it could’ve helped. It’s nice to break things up a little bit. I told him that I’d like to continue to run, and they’ve been OK with that.”

Stenhouse, who was raised in Mississippi, grew up on dirt tracks in the South and has long stayed connected to grassroots racing. He said he continues to race on dirt for two reasons. One, he enjoys it. Two, he believes it helps him hone his craft.

Dirt racing is ever changing, even in a single race. Stenhouse said changes to the track surface and the car force drivers to learn how to acclimate quickly to changes. He insists the talent that comes with learning how to acclimate on dirt directly translates to Cup Series cars, where tire wear, weather and track conditions can drastically change race cars during a single race.

So, Stenhouse continues to embrace dirt racing. One of his planned stops this year will be The Dirt Track at IMS for the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink.

Stenhouse has vowed to be back for the third running of the race July 1-2, which honors Stenhouse’s late friend Bryan Clauson. In the USAC National Midget race, Stenhouse drives for Clauson’s family’s team, Clauson-Marshall Racing.

“I’ll for sure be back,” he said. “I think last year the race went really smooth and had great finishes. The track was about perfect. I think it’s only going to continue to get better. I feel like everybody still wants to win the Chili Bowl, obviously, but you could put this one second. I think for this team, winning the Chili Bowl again for Bryan would be huge. But if you could win this race every year, I think the family and the team would be happy.”

Tickets are on-sale now for the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line event weekend, which includes a revamped July Fourth weekend schedule, the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink, FGL Fest and the Pennzoil 150 at the Brickyard NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

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