Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Do you remember those slip n’ slides when you were a kid? Yes, they are still around, and they could give you thrills for hours … or send you to the hospital.
If you were like me, you probably added extra soap to add some extra flare and excitement. That’s kind of what it is like putting dirt on Bristol Motor Speedway.
The concrete is entertaining enough, and despite the controversy of it, dirt is a whole different animal. Once again, that was on display in the Food City Dirt Race on Easter Sunday (April 9).
When the dust settled, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Easter egg cracked open with a top five inside. Stenhouse is no stranger to dirt, running several sprint car and quarter midget races — including the Chili Bowl Nationals — and that prowess was exhibited during the event.
Stenhouse actually opened the day by appearing at the Easter Celebration held outside the track early in the evening.
From there, the Olive Branch, Miss., native started the race from 22nd, working his way into the top 20 before the first of a multitude of cautions hit on lap 11.
Despite cars spinning around like turtle shells in Mario Kart, Stenhouse was able to dodge his way through the chaos to finish stage one in 17th.
The No. 47 was quietly toward the back end of the teens for most of stage two, but slowly crawled forward as the stage went along. By the time the green-and-white checkered flag flew, Stenhouse was in 12th.
The reigning Daytona 500 winner worked several grooves through the race, finding success as a bottom-feeder and momentum as a rim-rider. With 75 laps remaining, he cracked the top 10.
Several cautions in the late stages of the race kept the field bunched up, with three and even four-wide action taking the breath away of fans and teams. However, Stenhouse kept his nose clean and remained inside the top 10.
Following a restart on lap 243, the experienced dirt racer went from seventh to fourth, gaining one more spot a lap later. Austin Dillon got around Stenhouse for third, but the JTG Daugherty Racing driver held on for a stout fourth-place showing.
The Bristol dirt race has reaped rewards for Stenhouse, who finished runner-up in the inaugural event in 2021. He now has two top fives in three races on dirt at Bristol.
Stenhouse also has two top fives and three top 10s to open the season, his best start with JTG Daugherty Racing since joining the team in 2020. With a win in his pocket and some improved speed so far, the pressure is seemingly non-existent for this small team.
Justin Haley was able to appease the sting of a currently failed appeal by Kaulig Racing for a penalty that ended with him losing 75 driver/owner points (the team did file a final appeal). Haley finished the race in sixth, his second top 10 of the season. He too is not a stranger to dirt racing, as he grew up on the surface.
Haley started in 25th, but quickly worked his way through the field, earning two stage points with a ninth-place finish in stage one. He mirrored that result with two more points in stage two.
Haley then kept his No. 31 inside the top 15 for the remainder of the race. On the final restart with eight laps remaining, the Winamac, Ind., native went from ninth to sixth to clinch the top-10 result.
When Front Row Motorsports has made noise this season, it has been a full-team effort. Todd Gilliland led the charge at Bristol, finishing in eighth.
Gilliland had an uphill battle early on as he was involved in the first crash on lap 11. As William Byron was trying to avoid the spinning cars of Joey Logano and Bubba Wallace, he pinballed Gilliland, sending the No. 38 into the outside wall.
The sophomore driver kept his car in contention throughout the event, then pulled a wild card out of the deck as he stayed out on track following the conclusion of stage two, positioning himself in fourth for the restart. The call worked out beautifully, as the 22-year-old kept his car inside the top five for most of the final stage. He would get shuffled to eighth by the end, but Gilliland still picked up his second top 10 in three races, matching his 2022 total. It also marks four consecutive top 15s for the FRM driver.
Michael McDowell wrapped the night up in 11th, but he made the highlight reel in a different way. In stage two, McDowell did a complete 360-degree spin without receiving a single scratch. It happened once again a short time later, and yet, the No. 34 came through it clean.
The Phoenix, Ariz., native would recover to put himself in the top 10 for the final stage, using the same strategy as Gilliland. And just like his teammate, it worked, as McDowell stayed inside the top 10 for most of the race. He was initially scored in 10th after the race ended, but updated timing and scoring had put him behind Ty Gibbs in the finishing order.
In what had been a dismal start to the season, Harrison Burton has found his footing the past two weeks. A 15th-place run gives Burton his second-straight top 20 and matches his best result of the season. While the second-year driver is still searching for his first top 10, he finally has found some consistency and heads to a track he finished 11th at in the last outing.
AJ Allmendinger quietly deserves the comeback of the race award. The curse of a green race car hit the Kaulig driver in stage two, as he sustained damage from an incident and then had to pit under green with a flat tire, putting him two laps down. However, a caution with less than 50 laps remaining got Allmendinger back on the lead lap. In the final 43 laps, he worked his way from 30th to 16th by the time the checkered flag flew. It is Allmendinger’s fifth top 20 of 2023.
Rounding out the top 20 was JJ Yeley, whose dirt experience paid off for him this weekend. Yeley qualified third by the heat races to give him his best starting position since Michigan International Speedway in 2007. Despite a spin late in the race, the 46-year-old finished 20th, his best finish since Daytona International Speedway in 2019.
In 21st, Ty Dillon earned his best finish of the season with Spire Motorsports. Dillon stayed out after stage one, allowing him to spend a respectable amount of time in the top five. Despite getting into the wall later on, the Welcome, N.C., driver recovered for the solid finish.
Underdogs Who Built the Sport
Bristol, Tenn., is known as the home of country music, and Tennessee is general has a rich history when it comes to both country music and racing.
It is only fitting that one of the most popular underdogs was a country-music star-turned-NASCAR driver who made a career in Tennessee. That would be Marty Robbins.
A former Navy LCT, Robbins taught himself how to play the guitar as a teenager. Eventually, he would become a staple at the iconic Grand Ole Opry. Robbins would earn numerous accolades as a musician in his career, including a Grammy Award, gold records, No. 1 singles, and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But it was his other passion that separated him from his peers. Robbins appeared in 35 Cup races over 14 years, recording six top 10s and a sole top five at Michigan International Speedway in 1974. Robbins’ personality was as outstanding as his car colors, which typically carried vivid yellow and magenta schemes.
One story about Robbins was a move he made during the 1974 National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A pileup left several cars stranded on the track, including Dale Earnhardt. Moving at 160+ mph, Robbins put his own car in the wall to avoid hitting the beached cars. Robbins cited not risking other drivers’ safety as the reasoning for his actions.
The music legend and unique driver passed away in 1982 at the age of 57. His schemes have appeared on several throwbacks over the past few years.
What They’re Saying
Stenhouse (fourth): “It honestly felt like I hadn’t run dirt cars much. We just struggled a little bit yesterday. The guys worked really hard all night coming up with something different. We changed our No. 47 Irish Spring Camaro around and we were better. We still didn’t have enough to run up front there, but we methodically kind of picked and chose lanes. We got to running the bottom really well and made up a lot of time on restarts. They all just kind of fell our way there.”
Jonathan Davenport (36th):
Small Team Scheme of the Race
The Tide ride returned once again to clean things up at the Bristol dirt race. Instead of being with Legacy Motor Club, however, they were featured on Haley’s No. 31. The popping orange, blue, and white colors got plenty of exposure in Haley’s sixth-place run. Happy Easter, everyone!
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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