DOVER, Del. — It took a gutsy strategy call from crew chief Brian Pattie, a lot of nail-biting and “driving our guts out” in the final laps, but at the end of Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had found a way to remain above the cut line and advance to the Round of 12 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
Stenhouse, who had been running as low as 23rd in the opening stage of the race, was floundering near the cutoff line and was in danger of missing the next round.
On the opening round of pit stops, Pattie made the decision to keep Stenhouse on the race track as long as possible in hopes that a yellow flag would come out and they could salvage some track position out of the play.
And just as they were about to give up the ghost and dive to pit lane, the No. 17 team got their wish on lap 88, when Jeffrey Earnhardt backed his No. 33 Hulu Chevrolet into the sand barrels at the entrance to pit road.
Stenhouse was able to pit from third, and finished fourth in the stage to pick up seven valuable points.
As the race progressed, Stenhouse fell back to where he had been running at the beginning of the race. In the final stage, he ran 19th, and was racing heads-up with Ryan Newman for the final berth in the Round of 12.
Newman beat Stenhouse on-track, finishing 13th, but the difference wasn’t enough – the No. 31 fell two points shy of the cutoff.
After the race, Stenhouse was very aware of the importance the seven stage points carried, as they were the difference between advancing and being eliminated in the end.
“The feeling is lucky, really,” Stenhouse said. “We caught the caution there right at the right time with a perfect amount of laps left in the stage to get stage points and that was the turning point of our day.”
“Our Fastenal Ford was definitely not close to what we needed, especially the last two runs. We were close before the last two runs and made some adjustments there and really fell off. All in all, like I said, I feel lucky that we had all the mistakes at Chicago and really not a good car at Chicago, Loudon or Dover but we still made it in.”
There was a relief in Stenhouse’s words, knowing that he was through what was statistically his toughest round of the playoffs. The good news for him is that the Round of 12 should play to his strengths much more.
Talladega will be the obvious race in the Round of 12 that the No. 17 will have circled on the calendar. Stenhouse has won two restrictor plate races in a row, including the one in Alabama this past May.
But Stenhouse will also see opportunity to succeed at Charlotte and Kansas alike, where he finished in the top 15 in both of their spring races.
Still, Stenhouse knows that advancing into the Round of 8 will be contingent on improved performance across the board from his team.
“We have to run better. We have to bring faster race cars to the track because what we are bringing to the track right now is not nearly fast enough,” he said. “Hats off to the guys for fighting all day and it is nice that the round starts over. Now it’s game on again.”
About the Writer
James Pike is a multi-faceted reporter for Race Chaser Online and a former analyst on the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network.
Pike is a graduate of the Motorsports Management program at Belmont Abbey College and is originally from Winston-Salem, N.C., having grown up in the shadow of the legendary Bowman-Gray Stadium.
He is the founding correspondent for Race Chaser Online’s coverage of Australian Supercars, and he is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in International Sports Journalism overseas at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, England.
Pike’s past coverage with Race Chaser Onliine includes work with multiple regional touring series in the Carolinas, including the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the CARS Tour.
Email James at: RaceChaserJames@gmail.com
Follow on Twitter: @JamesVPike
Email Race Chaser Online: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow RCO on Twitter: @RaceChaserNews