Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s win Saturday at Daytona made him the fifth Cup Series driver to record multiple wins through the first 17 races of 2017.
But while Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. are all serious contenders to be among the four drivers who will compete for the Cup title at Homestead in November, Stenhouse isn’t quite in that group just yet.
To start, the four drivers who entered Daytona with multiple wins are in the top seven in the points standings. They’ve all had consistent speed across all types of tracks and have been able to avoid bad finishes, something that’s paramount to NASCAR playoff success. Even after Saturday’s win, Stenhouse is 16th in points.
NASCAR gives five bonus points to start the playoffs for every win a driver has entering the regular season. And drivers who win a stage in a race get a point to carry over to the playoffs. Stenhouse is the only driver of the five to not win a stage so far.
What’s more glaring is Stenhouse’s lack of stage points altogether. Drivers who finish a stage in the top 10 earn points on a 10-1 scale. Stenhouse has just 17 stage points for the entire season. Nineteen drivers have more stage points and Stenhouse’s stage point total is just one more than AJ Allmendinger’s.
Allmendinger is 27th in the points standings.
We don’t know just how the playoffs will go with NASCAR’s new points structure and drivers being able to carry bonus points from round to round, but it stands to reason that intermediate track success and stage points will be imperative.
Tracks 1.5-miles in length make up half the playoff schedule. And Stenhouse’s first top-10 finish on a track between 1 and 2 miles long came two weeks ago at Michigan when he finished eighth.
“I feel like our next accomplishments that we can do on the racetrack are probably short track wins,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve got really good track records so far this year, and that’s where we’re probably looking at to get another win besides on a speedway.
“We’re still working on our mile‑and‑a‑half program. We don’t feel like we’re capable of winning on a mile‑and‑a‑half program. We feel like we can run top 10 and get top‑10 finishes, but we’re not ready to go out and win those races yet. But that’s something that we’re working towards, trying to get a plan together for the playoffs so that we can go out and compete at those.”
Stenhouse’s Roush Fenway Racing team has shown increased speed after dropping from three to two cars for the 2017 season. Stenhouse hasn’t finished inside the top 20 in points since 2012 and teammate Trevor Bayne is currently 19th. Bayne’s never finished inside the top 20 himself.
After following up his Talladega win in May with a win at Daytona, Stenhouse is the prohibitive favorite for the fall race at Talladega. If Stenhouse makes it through the first round of the playoffs, a win at Talladega would put him through to the third round; a round that includes Martinsville and Phoenix, places where he’s finished inside the top 10 already this season.
But banking on a win at Talladega is a risky strategy, no matter how good of a restrictor plate racer Stenhouse Jr. has become and how good of a car he’s had. Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — drivers considered two of the best plate racers in the series — have been in accidents in each of the three plate races this season. Plate racing can be a fluky business.
“It’s a lot,” Stenhouse said when asked about his success this season at Daytona and Talladega. “It’s luck. It’s hard work and determination by all the guys on our team. It’s really prepared race cars. Looking over everything, making sure we’re not missing anything. You know, it’s easy to overheat these cars here. It’s easy to miss something. You’re running so hard each and every lap, and all that’s got to play out together. You know, you’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to miss the wrecks. We missed a lot of wrecks tonight.”
If Roush gets more engineering support from Ford or devotes more resources to Stenhouse’s team to prep for the playoffs, Stenhouse has a shot to rely on more speed than luck to advance through the playoffs. But if that speed on intermediate tracks doesn’t improve, Stenhouse will likely be on the outside looking in as the playoffs near their crescendo.