[media-credit name=”Dan Sanger” align=”alignright” width=”215″][/media-credit]After suffering one of the worst slumps in his career since his rookie year back in 2010, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continued his upward swing on Friday night at Daytona.
Stenhouse finished second in the Subway Jalapeno 250 in his No. 6 NOS Energy Drink Ford Mustang. It was his third straight top 11 finish after finishing no better than 25th in the three races before that. Finally having a night where everything went right and the team looked like the defending champions they are.
“It’s pretty cool,” Stenhouse said afterwards. “A couple years ago, I think our rookie season, we were third coming to the line when [Dale Earnhardt] Junior won. That was really exciting.”
Stenhouse’s night wasn’t exactly smooth though even though it started off with an inherited pole when Austin Dillon failed inspection. When the green flag flew Stenhouse would run up front and find drafting partners in Danica Patrick and Joe Nemechek.
But on lap 76 he spun Brad Sweet off turn four. The two had been tandem drafting when it became a case of bump drafting gone bad, Stenhouse anticipating Sweet making different move and getting him loose. Sweet would be done for the night, Stenhouse continued on but found more trouble on lap 82. This time it was contact with Jeffery Earnhardt going down the backstretch.
Earnhardt was not pleased and gave Stenhouse the one finger salute the next lap around. According to Earnhardt the shot that Stenhouse gave him in turns one and two was too aggressive and then going down the backstretch he hit him even harder. The contact sent Earnhardt around and collected Patrick.
“We ran up on him pretty quick,” said Stenhouse about the accident. “The 31 [Justin Allgaier] we were working together there, and the 15 [Earnhardt] was in front of us. I tried to get to the inside of him there going in one and he chopped us.
“I kind of pushed him out, trying to get him in front so I could hook back up with the 33 [Kevin Harvick] and then just caught him a little hard there. I hit him a couple of times in one and two, and then kind of thought he would drag the brake a little bit, but, then again, I probably should have known a little better.
“He didn’t practice that in practice – two car drafting – and he’s not out here with us every week, so I probably should have thought a little bit better before I did that.”
There wasn’t too much time for Stenhouse to dwell, he still had a shot to win the race. On the green-white-checkered finish Stenhouse pushed eventual winner Kurt Busch to the lead. Except, that was all he could do because the tandem of Austin Dillon and Michael Annett quickly closed from behind and ruined any chance Stenhouse had of making a move on Busch.
“Restarting 11th with a green-white-checkered and I got a really good restart, shot up the middle and it just kind of seemed like they parted,” recalled Stenhouse. “The 1 [Busch] was coming back and I knew he was fast and we were able to push all night. I felt like we had one of the best cars that could push, so getting hooked up with him I knew he would make the right decisions to get to the front, so I just pushed as hard as I could and there at the end I never even looked out the windshield.
“I was just making sure I was pushing him and looked in the mirror to see where the 3 [Dillon] and the 43 [Annett] were coming, and tried to block them. I was hoping they weren’t going to have as big of a run on us so that I could try to make a pass for the lead.”
It was Stenhouse’s first top five since he won at Iowa in May. After stumbling out of the point lead and into third, the finish will go a long way towards fighting back. Maybe Daytona will again end up being the turning point for Stenhouse’s season, just as it did in 2010, which saved is career.
Now with 16 races down and 17 to go in the season, Stenhouse still sits third in points. But he’s closed to within 18 points of the leaders heading into New Hampshire next weekend.
“For our first time with NOS Energy on the car, I think they’re happy,” Stenhouse said. “We got a very good run out of it and we’re gonna get back to winning here pretty soon.”