Stenhouse earns RFR their first top five of 2017 season

For once, luck was on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s side.

Stenhouse earns RFR their first top five of 2017 season
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Checkered flag for Ryan Newman, Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Stenhouse battled from a 21st starting position at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. He was 24th after the first two stages in the Camping World 500 — and the No. 17 Fastenal Ford was barely picking up ground. 

I think our cars and the attitude at the shop is really good.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

But late-race cautions and bold strategy by crew chief Brian Pattie, provided Stenhouse with the necessary track position to finish fourth — his first top-five finish of the season — and the second top-10 result for Roush Fenway Racing in 2017.

“We weren’t that great during practice as far as speed goes but I thought our car had good long run speed and we proved that today when we were able to get some long runs,” Stenhouse said. “We weren’t as bad on restarts as I thought we were going to be.” 

Stenhouse moved into the top 20 after the fifth caution on Lap 200. When the sixth caution occurred on lap 205, Stenhouse was 17th. He moved into the top 10 by Lap 250 and held his position when the No. 72 hit the wall in Turn 2. However, Stenhouse lost ground on the Lap 262 restart. Over the next two laps, Stenhouse moved back to 12th. He was 11th when Joey Logano’s tire blew on Lap 207. 

The gamble paid off

Stenhouse was one of three teams that elected not to pit on the eighth and final caution. Stenhouse restarted second on old tires. Despite contact with Kyle Larson entering Turn 1, he held on to finish fourth -- his eighth career top-five finish in Cup.

“There at the end, I thought Brian wanted us to stay out and I kind of second guessed him,” Stenhouse said. “When I told him everyone was coming down pit road I had already committed to stay out and that paid off. We made the car better throughout the race and we stuck with it, passed a lot of race cars today and made it pretty fun.”

“Fun” hasn’t exactly described Stenhouse’s experiences at the track over the last couple of weeks. He wrecked during practice the last two weekends. At Las Vegas, the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing had to pull out a backup car following a vicious wreck in second practice. On Saturday at Phoenix, Stenhouse’s brakes failed in second practice. The team repaired his car and he was able to finish the session. 

“In Vegas our car was really loose,” said Stenhouse, who finished 33rd last weekend. “We got really loose into turn one and had to bring out the backup car but you know what, the good thing is that I thought our backup car was just as good as our primary car. That is what the guys have been preaching at the shop, not only bring the best cars we can but that the backup is just as good. You have to be prepared for anything. 

“We had a brake issue going into turn one the first lap of the first practice on Saturday. Luckily, we just had minor damage and in five minutes were back out logging laps. The axles last week cost us probably 15-20 spots. We have had some bad luck but today was fun. I thought we made our car better throughout the race and it has been awhile since we’ve done that so I was pretty happy.”

Changes at Roush Fenway and support from Ford

During the off-season, Roush Fenway Racing parred down to two teams — the No. 6 Ford with Trevor Bayne and Stenhouse in the No. 17. Bayne is enjoying his second season with crew chief Matt Puccia and is currently 12th in the standings. 

Pattie, who had been with veteran Greg Biffle last year, replaced Nick Sandler as crew chief on the No. 17 team for this season. Sandler had guided Stenhouse over the last two years with mediocre results. But the company as a whole has struggled since Carl Edwards left the company following the 2014 season. That was also the last year a Roush Ford won. 

Still, Ford remains committed to Roush. Dave Pericak, Director of Ford Performance, told motorsport.com last week that Roush was “getting better”. 

“The cars are getting faster, they are finishing in better spots this year,” Pericak said. We want to bring Jack back to Victory Lane...We’re 100-percent dedicated to that team.”

Pericak was also quick to point out the Roush teams execution needs to improve. He was quick not to point fingers at Bayne, 26, or Stenhouse, 29. 

“As far as the Roush Fenway drivers, I wouldn’t give up on those guys just yet,” Pericak added. “I think they didn't have the right equipment. There are a lot of other things we’ve been fixing inside Roush that weren’t in place. 

“We have to give those guys the opportunity to show us. They’re there at the Cup level for a reason. I think we’re giving them better equipment now, and we’re giving them everything else in place.” 

Stenhouse admits he’s “definitely seen a difference in the quality” this season but realizes the team has a long way to go to rekindle Roush’s glory days. 

“We have made a big improvement from last year, especially the end of last year,” said Stenhouse, who vaulted from 29th to 22nd in the standings after his first top-five finish since Talladega in October. “In Atlanta we had a really good car and got the right front fender tore off on the last restart. I thought we would finish 5th-10th there. 

“I thought we had a 15th place car in Vegas and had an issue with the axle at the end. Today, I thought we had a 10th place car on the long run and took a gamble and were able to get a better finish there at the end. 

“I think our cars and the attitude at the shop is really good. Trevor has some solid finishes here in the first few races and that is something encouraging and something to build off of. I feel like we have had speed, just haven’t gotten the finishes for the speed we have. It is better to have speed and have to figure out how to get the finishes.”

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