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Stenhouse Hopes Climb in Points, Dirt Track Race Relieve Playoffs Pressure during Brickyard Week

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line could be one of the most exciting editions of the annual NASCAR Cup Series race ever at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And there’s a good chance he could be right in the middle of the thrills, even if he would prefer not to be.

Stenhouse, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, is 17th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff points this season in the No. 17 Fastenal Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Racing, 23 points behind 16th place Alex Bowman. The top 16 drivers earn a spot in the NASCAR Playoffs, and the Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard Powered by Florida Georgia Line on Sept. 7-9 is the last race of the regular season, where the Playoffs field will be set.

The new date is a welcome change for the 25th anniversary of the race, which previously ran in the stifling heat of late July or early August and was six weeks before the regular-season finale.

“(The new date) doesn’t really ratchet up the pressure, but it ratchets up the excitement and the possibility,” Stenhouse said. “We’re battling a few cars for the cutoff point as far as the points go to make the playoffs, and I expect we’re going to keep that close until we got down to Indy.

“Indy is a crazy race. Last year, the fastest car didn’t win. It came down to a lot of late-race restarts. There are so many different strategies and scenarios that can play out here. So I think it will make it exciting being the last race of the regular season.”

Stenhouse, 30, has recorded two top-five finishes this season but no wins. Last year he won the spring race at Talladega and the Fourth of July weekend night race at Daytona to lock in his spot in the Playoffs and earn his first two Cup Series wins.

Those victories relieved the pressure throughout the long, tough stretch of hot summer races and let his Roush Fenway team split focus between the remaining events of the regular season and the Playoffs. Stenhouse doesn’t have that luxury so far this year.

“Hopefully we’ll have a win by that time (Brickyard) and be locked into the Playoffs,” 2013 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Stenhouse said. “If not, we want to come into Indy definitely in the top 16. You don’t want to be trying to make it into the top 16. For us, I want to be 15th or 16th in points.

“It’s nice to have a 15- to 20-point lead ahead of the guy behind you, and you feel comfortable about staying in front of him. In our series, the guys around me in points are the guys that we race around every week. I hope to have myself clear of that (by Indy).”

History is another reason Stenhouse hopes he either has won a race or has some padding in the Playoffs standings entering the second weekend of September at IMS.

Two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Stenhouse may be one of the new masters of restrictor-plate racing on the high banks of Talladega and Daytona with his victories there last year, but he’s never enjoyed a strong finish on the relatively flat, 9-degree banking turns and long straightaways at IMS.

Stenhouse’s best finish in five previous Brickyard starts is 12th in 2016, the same year he started a Brickyard career-best 16th. Last year he was challenging for the top 10 when he spun exiting Turn 2 and crashed out of the race, ending up 35th.

“It’s funny: You look at this track from an overhead view, and you would think all of the corners are real similar,” Stenhouse said of IMS. “I don’t think each corner couldn’t drive more different than any other track we go to, which makes it tough. The flatter corner, the high speeds, make it tough to get a handle on the racetrack.

“For us, the important corner is just like when IndyCar is here, it’s Turn 2 and Turn 4. Those are corners I feel like I’ve struggled in. The last two Brickyard races, I feel like I’ve gotten substantially better. I think we’ve made our cars better.

“I felt like I had a top-10 car here last year, and I made a mistake passing for 11th and spun out and got into the fence. But we’ve made our cars faster when we’ve come to Indy. It’s made me more optimistic every time I show up.”

Stenhouse also has another reason to be happy about racing this year at the Brickyard. He plans to compete in the Driven2SaveLives BC39 USAC P1 Insurance Midget National Championship race Sept. 5-6 on the new Dirt Track at IMS, a quarter-mile clay oval located inside Turn 3.

That event features more than $70,000 in purse and incentives, including a $15,000 winner’s purse – the largest in Midget racing. But racing in that event isn’t about the money or USAC points for Stenhouse. It’s all about returning to his sliding sideways roots and having fun.

Stenhouse attracted attention from NASCAR team owners when he was named USAC Rookie of the Year in both the Sprint Car and Midget divisions in 2007. He finished sixth in the Sprint Car standings and third in the Midget standings.

He moved to ARCA stock car competition in 2008, eventually climbing to Xfinity and Cup racing.

“I’m definitely racing in the BC39; It’s a no-brainer for me,” Stenhouse said. “Any time I can race something outside of NASCAR, I try to do so. I haven’t done it as much in the last few years as I’ve wanted. But this is one of the races I’ll definitely have on the Midget schedule.

“For me, this is the most exciting form of racing in the country. Midgets are one of my most favorite cars to drive. When I ran USAC in 2007 was some of the most fun times I’ve had in racing and some of the hardest racing I’ve done. I think fans will get a really good show if they show up. Come in early, make a weekend out of it, make a good vacation out of it.”

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