Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty’s message to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. before Sunday’s (Feb. 26) Pala Casino 400 at Auto Club Speedway was simple: his Daytona 500 celebration must be short-lived.
Stenhouse had just enjoyed a fun-filled week capped off by a national media tour that took him from Chicago to New York City in recognition of that Daytona 500 breakthrough. It was the biggest upset in NASCAR’s Great American Race in over 10 years, Stenhouse achieving a lifetime goal inside the sport.
But when the weekend came, it was business as usual for the Olive Branch, Miss. native. Any distractions were easily pushed aside as Stenhouse secured a 12th-place finish in the second NASCAR Cup Series event of 2023.
Stenhouse started on the front row in a race where conditions were treacherous from the start. Both rain and snow washed out all on-track action Saturday, including an all-important practice session. It meant he was one of the first drivers to know what the track would be like when the field barreled into turn 1 on the opening lap.
At first, it seemed Stenhouse would sink like an anchor, breaking loose and dropping 11 spots in the first two laps alone. However, the No. 47 Chevrolet adapted from there, settling in at the back end of the top 15.
Stenhouse reported his car getting tight across the seams early in the race, earning a 15th-place stage one finish.
The 35-year-old began mired back in traffic at the beginning of stage two. However, after an early caution, he avoided major damage when a 10-car pileup occurred around him on a lap 87 restart. Stenhouse’s lap times improved from there, closing stage two in 13th.
During the final stage, Stenhouse pushed the limits a little too much, hitting the wall twice with the No. 47 Chevrolet. Fortunately, the durability of the Next Gen car kept him running, Stenhouse able to make some passes and rise to as high as ninth. Fluctuating a bit from there, he remained on the fringes of the top 10 down the stretch, coming home in 12th position. It’s his third-best career result at Auto Club in what NASCAR claims will be the final race in its current two-mile configuration.
Following up a win as colossal as the Daytona 500 is a tall task, especially when you don’t have quite the resources of other powerhouse teams. But for Stenhouse and crew, it’s clear 2023 will be a year you’ll need to keep an eye on them, a team with the right attitude able to reset after the biggest win of their careers.
That indeed appears to be the case. Stenhouse remarked last week JTG Daugherty Racing has increased support from Chevrolet and, armed with Hendrick Motorsports engines, they expect to be more competitive at all types of tracks this season.
Who Stood Out
One of the intriguing factors of a new year is to see which teams made a jump in performance. Think of Furniture Row Racing in 2015 or Trackhouse Racing Team last season, moving up a tier to compete with the Cup Series elite. Two races in, could Spire Motorsports’ No. 7 team with Corey LaJoie be an early 2023 candidate for most improved?
LaJoie finished 14th, but how he did it made things even more remarkable. LaJoie noticeably struggled with exit early on, turning Brad Keselowski to bring out the first caution for cause after his car got upset off turn 2. Later, LaJoie was sandwiched between Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger on lap 75, ending with more contact that sent Allmendinger into the inside wall.
On lap 81, LaJoie was the victim of another driver sliding up the track as Tyler Reddick clipped his No. 7 machine off turn 4. That sent LaJoie spinning through the grass, escaping major damage but involved in his third caution of the day.
Despite all that early drama, LaJoie settled down and showed speed all race long. He charged back to earn a stage point in stage two and wound up with a strong top-15 result. The performance cut his previous best Auto Club finish in half, improving dramatically on a 28th-place result from a year ago.
Harrison Burton quietly turned in a 15th-place finish, a nice recovery after crashing out of the season-opening Daytona 500. The second-year driver showed speed all afternoon, adjustments gradually helping him move up from a 24th-place starting position. Burton even cracked the top five late, trying to stretch his fuel during the last green flag pit stop cycle.
A week after a rough outing at Daytona, Front Row Motorsports bounced back with a pair of top 20s of their own. Todd Gilliland finished 17th after struggling with grip and turn in the corners early on. However, avoiding lap 87’s 10-car chaos helped clear away some competition, late adjustments resulting in a solid top 20. Gilliland has now earned a top 20 in both of his Auto Club starts.
FRM teammate Michael McDowell finished right behind him in 18th. McDowell spent more time inside the top 20 but also struggled with a tight-handling Ford. On the final run of the race, McDowell attempted to stretch his fuel for 55 laps, gaining the lead during the final round of green flag stops. However, the caution he was seeking never came out and McDowell wound up clinging to a top 20 after holding the lead with 25 laps remaining.
There were a couple of underdogs with results that may get overlooked: JJ Yeley and BJ McLeod. Yeley finished 23rd with Rick Ware Racing, his best finish since Kansas Speedway in 2020. McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports showed some improvements as well in their first season with Chevrolet, running inside the top 20 at times, staying on the lead lap most of the race, and winding up 24th.
Underdogs Who Built the Sport
While this column covers underdogs who may not have many, if any, wins, there are plenty of longshots in NASCAR who found themselves competitive week in and week out. In fact, during the early decades of stock car racing, some of the best underdog stories were found in independents who found themselves beating some of the sport’s biggest names.
One of NASCAR’s earliest underdog success stories came in the form of Rex White. When you look at the numbers, White had 28 wins, 110 top fives and 163 top 10s in only 233 starts, including a Cup championship in 1960. With that much success, how could White be an underdog?
Let’s start with his physical frame. Standing at just 5’4″, White bought a beat-up 1937 Ford to begin his competitive racing journey. White was one of the original Chevrolet racing drivers in NASCAR, fielding his own team and car for most of his career. Known for short-track prowess and an ability to outperform his equipment, White won 26 of his 28 races on tracks shorter than a mile. His 1960 title made him the fourth owner-driver to win the Cup championship.
The Spartanburg, N.C. native was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998. In 2015, White was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. At 93 years old, he remains the oldest living NASCAR champion.
What They’re Saying
Todd Gilliland (17th):
Justin Haley (21st): “Our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1 was so fast. We ran free in comparison to my teammate, AJ [Allmendinger], but we knew we had so much speed and potential. Trent [Owens] made some great calls to help the ride quality of the car, and we knew if we could get some track position, we would be in a good spot. Unfortunately, we got caught in a pileup on a restart and sustained heavy nose damage. P21 was a decent finish for the day we had.”
Noah Gragson (22nd):
AJ Allmendinger (36th):
Small Team Scheme of the Week
The competition was tight for this week’s best scheme, but Gilliland’s No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford worked wonders once again. It didn’t really change from last year’s look, but the restaurant’s classic blue and yellow colors continue to make this design stand out.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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Big surprise with the Stenhouse results. It reminds me of McDowell’s Daytona victory or with Danica’s pole win and finished sixth and eventually dropped out of the top sixteen in points. We’ve seen these Super Speedway victors before, then reality sets in.