Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
No matter the skeptics in the past or focusing on what he has not done, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has already accomplished some respectable feats in his career.
He is a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, has won three NASCAR Cup Series races, and one of those was a victory in this year’s Daytona 500.
One thing that he has not done though, despite being with RFK Racing and a road course-winning team in JTG-Daugherty Racing, was earn a top 10 on a road course.
That all changed in the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (March 26).
After starting in 18th, Stenhouse was quick early on, running top-10 lap times and progressing up the leaderboard through the first two stages. By the end of stage two, Stenhouse picked up five stage points in sixth.
In the final stage, Stenhouse had a close call during a pit stop under yellow when he stopped short in his pit box, costing him time on the stop. With just over 25 laps remaining, he had to restart in 31st.
Within six laps, the No. 47 made it to the top 20 before sliding back to 22nd. Fortunately, another caution with 13 to go allowed him to pit for four tires and fuel.
Another caution on lap 59 left Stenhouse with left-rear damage, forcing him to pit once again.
More trouble struck on lap 61 when Stenhouse suffered a flat tire, relegating him to 31st with five laps to go. And that is where the comeback began.
As they say, cautions breed cautions and that was certainly true at COTA. Not one, not two, but three overtimes allowed the 35-year-old to climb back into contention.
By the time the white flag flew, Stenhouse had fought all the way back to seventh, where he would stay when the checkered flag waved.
It was quite the comeback for Stenhouse and the No. 47 team, as he gained 24 spots in the final 10 laps.
For Stenhouse, it is another bright spot to a solid start this season. While the result is his first top 10 since his Daytona 500 triumph, it’s his fifth top 20 in the season’s first six races. To compare, he only had one in the first six races of 2022.
The Olive Branch, Miss. native fought all day long, and that certainly signals a lot of optimism for this team going forward.
Todd Gilliland is no stranger to success at COTA. Two years ago, he won the inaugural NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at the track. Now, he has earned a Cup top 10 on the 3.41-mile track.
Gilliland immediately caught eyes when he drove from 36th up to 18th within the first 10 laps. By the end of stage one, that increased to 24 spots as he was scored in 13th. Pit strategy left him mired in the field for the second stage, but he quickly climbed inside the top 15 to begin the final stage.
When the second overtime restart commenced, Gilliland was stuck in 22nd. By the last caution, he had driven up to ninth and would end up settling for 10th to earn his first top 10 of the 2023 season. It is Gilliland’s third career top 10, with two of those coming on road courses.
Right behind Gilliland was a driver whose hot start has caught the eyes of the garage: Corey LaJoie. LaJoie has stacked a lot of pennies already to begin the new season, and that continued with a comeback of his own at COTA.
LaJoie had to overcome nearly everything in the book. He was penalized early in the races for cutting through the esses, then he was caught speeding while serving the pass-through penalty. Later, the 31-year-old sustained damage and was black flagged by NASCAR to repair the diffuser. That left him two laps down in a race that did not feature stage breaks.
However, thanks to a flurry of cautions in the closing laps, LaJoie was able to get back on the lead lap and drive all the way to 11th by the end, his best finish on a road course. After six races, LaJoie’s impressive start has him sitting 15th in the standings.
The impressive comebacks continued with Michael McDowell, who finished in 12th. McDowell was certainly a sleeper at COTA, as he earned four top 10s on road courses in 2022.
McDowell showed speed all race, including earning eight stage points in stage two. However, he had to overcome starting at the rear for unapproved adjustments, a penalty for cutting the esses early in the race. On the second-to-last overtime, McDowell got tagged from behind while running sixth and fell all the way back to 30th.
Fortunately, McDowell methodically drove through the field, gaining 18 spots by the time the checkered flag flew. The result is McDowell’s second top 15 in the past three races. Another bright spot so far is that he has scored 14 stage points through the first six events.
AJ Allmendinger was an instant threat given his road racing prowess, and the fact that he won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race the day prior. Allmendinger was inside the top five or 10 all race long, but trouble struck with nine laps remaining. On a restart, Austin Dillon got turned, causing Allmendinger to make significant contact with the right front. The damage was too much to repair and Allmendinger would finish 34th.
The field this weekend was one of the most compelling in the past few years, with two former Formula 1 champions, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and IMSA champion Jordan Taylor (filling in for Chase Elliott). Let’s see how the two former F1 champions faired.
Jenson Button left with quite an impressive finish in his debut and the same passion that has earned him quite the fanbase.
The 2009 F1 champion had to face some adversity himself, as he struggled with oversteer and heat issues. Button’s cool suit failed him during the race, which is definitely not optimal in the Texas heat. However, he would grind it out for a top 20 finish in the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing (with support from Stewart-Haas Racing).
Button will compete in two more races this season.
Kimi Raikkonen was able to complete the whole race in his second Cup start. His debut at Watkins Glen International ended early due to a crash last season. Raikkonen’s return was special, as COTA was the site of his last F1 victory.
Raikkonen looked more comfortable at times in Trackhouse Racing’s No. 91 car. The Iceman got as high as fourth in the event with 10 laps to go.
Unfortunately, the Finnish driver was involved in late incidents and handed a 30-second penalty for cutting the esses, relegating him to a 29th-place result. Still, there were plenty of signs of improvement from the Project91 driver in his second appearance.
What They’re Saying
Gilliland (10th): “The restarts were really good for us, even in the very beginning of the race. We were able to fire off and gain a lot of spots right off the bat. So, after that, we had fallen off a little worse than everyone else, but our fire-off speed was probably top-five to 10 every time.
“It was really nice to have some speed there, and to be really aggressive on the restarts. Most of them worked out really well. I got spun once, but we were able to rebound up to 10th or so. That’s good — 15th and 10th the last two races. That’s something to build on.”
Noah Gragson (20th): “Had a solid day in our Black Rifle Coffee Camaro. We ran inside the top-10 and top-15 for a large part of the day with good speed. We kept working on the car. Luke Lambert and the rest of the guys called a great strategy. The pit crew did an awesome job.
“We put ourselves in position during the green-white-checkers to be in the top 10. I ended up getting spun and rallied back. We never quit. I’m very proud of our Black Rifle Coffee team and excited to get to Richmond and try it again.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Raikkonen once again featured the sponsors he had in his Cup debut in 2022, but this time it featured a different color scheme. Rather than black, blue and yellow on the No. 91, The Iceman drove a black and red Trackhouse car that matched the intensity he brings.
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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Stenhouse is represented by Harvick’s management co. Results like he’s put up so far this season makes me wonder how long JTG Daughtery will be able to keep him? Having driven so long be Roush, when it was on it’s back foot. And now for another underfunded, mid pack team, makes me wonder what he could do with something like Stewart Hass, where Harvick just might have some influence over his replacement.
A lot of the bad rap Stenhouse has picked up about wrecking, has probably been about trying to get too much out of too little, equipment wise.