<
>

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. expects to be fast at Talladega on Sunday

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been the master of restrictor-plate racing in 2017. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't bring the car that won Talladega in May back with him for Sunday's pivotal playoff race.

He didn't want anything to happen to that car, which he drove to his first career NASCAR Cup win in 158 career starts. He now owns that car. It's his. It sure as heck is not gonna end up in the Dale Earnhardt Jr. race car graveyard.

"I wanted my first-win car," Stenhouse said with a smile.

So he also must have the car that he drove to victory at Daytona in July, right? Daytona International Speedway is a sister track to Talladega Superspeedway with the same restrictor-plate rules.

Nope. That car was cut into pieces, with the hood and all the confetti having gone to Fifth Third Bank for its first victory as a sponsor and other pieces being used for promotions.

Stenhouse has a new car for this weekend's Alabama 500 at Talladega, a pivotal race as he seeks to advance into the semifinal round of eight. One race (Kansas) remains in the quarterfinal round following Talladega.

He expects this car to be just as fast as the two he took to Victory Lane earlier this year.

"These teams are so capable, they white-line scan all these cars, and they can build them really close to identical," Stenhouse said. "If you bring back the same car, I don't think you're ahead. You're behind because everybody is trying to get better, especially in the playoffs.

"I like that we've got a new one."

When he started the season, Stenhouse had the goal of improving on 2016, winning a race and making the playoffs.

He did that, winning back-to-back restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona, finishing 18th in the regular-season points (he was 20th after Richmond last year) and built on that by advancing out of the first round of the playoffs. The only thing that frustrates Stenhouse is his team has a habit of seeing other teams leapfrog ahead in performance during the year.

"We started about a 12th-place car and trended down," Stenhouse said. "I'm disappointed in our trend down. ... But so far it's a successful season as far as accomplishing our goals.

"When we made the playoffs, we said we could make it to the second round and we felt that would be a success. Now that we're in the second round, our goal is to make it to the third. Come Kansas [after next week], if we're not in the third round, we'll be disappointed."

Having won at Talladega and having advanced to the round that includes Talladega might give the impression that he just needed to get to this round to make the semifinals.

But Stenhouse doesn't look at it that way.

"I feel good about our car going in," Stenhouse said. "We built a new one and we feel like it is really good. I feel confident in the car. But you have to have everything play out just right.

"We missed certain wrecks. ... There's a lot of people capable of winning. It does make it a little easier when you have a really fast car. So, I'm counting on that when we get there."

A promising run to open the second round at Charlotte was wiped away with a late speeding penalty by Stenhouse, who finished a respectable 13th Sunday but now sits last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers.

"If we had a bad Charlotte like [the playoff opener at] Chicago, as far as no speed, not handling good, penalties and finishing 25th, I'd be a little concerned going into Kansas and I would go into Talladega thinking, 'Hey, I have to win,' " Stenhouse said.

Considering he's just 10 points out of eighth contributes to the feeling that he doesn't view this weekend as a must-win situation. It's a must-point situation, meaning he needs to earn stage points as well as points for his race finish.

"It'd be nice to get eight points [for a top-3] in each stage and then turn around and be in the top five at the end of the race," Stenhouse said. "I don't think we have to win to advance. If we have a top-5 with some stage points, I think that will put us above that cut line going into Kansas.

"We can't act like it's win it or nothing because really we're not in that spot right now."

That means no riding around in the back of the field at Talladega.

"If you're in the top five, you can avoid most of the wrecks," Stenhouse said. "If that's the case, then I feel like we've got a really good shot at it. It's when you get 15th in the pack is where you really feel uncomfortable and vulnerable for anything to happen.

"We're confident we can do it again, for sure."

Stenhouse admits he has more confidence at Talladega since his win here earlier this year. And he built on that confidence at Daytona.

"I felt a lot better going into Daytona -- that's really what ultimately helped us win Daytona was I just felt a lot more confident going to the track, getting in that top five, restarting in the front row and knowing we're capable of doing this," Stenhouse said.

"I felt like things I learned at Talladega helped me at Daytona. Things I learned at Daytona are going to help me at Talladega. You just keep logging information."