Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a Playoff Sleeper?

Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Progress. Progress is the forward movement to a destination.

For NASCAR Cup Series teams, that destination may include diverse paths, different targets and varying timelines. However, they all have the same goal: win.

Every season, there is at least one team that has taken that next step. Last season, it was Trackhouse Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Front Row Motorsports.

This season, a couple are already standing out, and one has undoubtedly been JTG Daugherty Racing with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. behind the wheel.

Three races after earning his first career road-course top 10, the reigning Daytona 500 champion earned an eight-place finish in the NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway (April 16), a career best at the track.

Martinsville has never been Stenhouse’s bread-and-butter, with two consecutive 10th-place runs in 2017 and 2018 serving as his only prior top 10s. But this is 2023, and Stenhouse and JTG Daugherty have grown.

Stenhouse started 16th but faded to 23rd by the end of stage one as dirty air hampered progress for many drivers. However, some adjustments in the second stage allowed him to drive up to 14th with 220 laps remaining.

The No. 47 hovered around 15th for most of the final stage before Stenhouse pitted under green with just over 100 laps to go.

That would backfire.

A caution on lap 301 trapped the 35-year-old a lap down. Fortunately, he was able to take the wave around and get back on the lead lap. On the downside, he had to start near the rear of the field, which caused him to slip back to 24th.

On lap 342, the caution waved for the final time, nudging several teams to pit. Crew chief Mike Kelley made the call to keep Stenhouse on track, catapulting him to fourth.

The call worked out masterfully, as Stenhouse held strong inside the top 10 to score the eighth-place result.

JTG Daugherty has made all sorts of progress this season, first kicking it off with the Daytona triumph; but they haven’t stopped there. Stenhouse already has four top 10s in 2023, just one shy of the most he’s recorded in a season with JTG Daugherty (five).

It is the first time the Olive Branch, Miss., native has earned four top 10s in the first nine races since 2017, a season where he was with RFK Racing and won twice.

For JTG Daugherty, it is the first time one of its drivers has ever recorded four top 10s in that same span to start a season.

So, that begs the question: How far can this team go?

Teams sometimes are fairly or unfairly dubbed “playoff fillers.” But for Stenhouse, tracks like Darlington, Bristol, Talladega and Homestead-Miami play right into his wheelhouse.

With his ability to earn top 10s on tracks where he has historically struggled, maybe it is time to take a closer look at what Stenhouse can do come September.

Who Impressed

In a race where passing was difficult, there were comers and goers among the underdogs. Despite many running up inside the top 15 at times, only Michael McDowell joined Stenhouse in the top 20.

McDowell struggled to crack the top 15 for most of the race, but his big break came on lap 301. A caution during green-flag pit stops stranded several drivers one lap down, but McDowell was still on the track in seventh.

The Phoenix, Ariz., native held tough inside the top 12, but another caution put him back in traffic again. McDowell would slip to 19th by the finish but still notched his sixth finish of 19th or better in nine races.

It was McDowell’s teammate at Front Row Motorsports who was arguably the underdog of the race overall, however. Todd Gilliland has been a man on a mission as of late, coming into Martinsville with two top 10s in three races. Ever since FRM announced Gilliland would share the ride for a few races with Zane Smith, you could feel the motivation from Gilliland.

The 22-year-old ran inside the top 15 up until the first caution on lap 132. There, he took two tires and jumped to sixth. Gilliland then drove up as high as second in an impressive display, finishing stage two in seventh.

Gilliland remained in the top 10 in the final stage, getting as high as fifth. But unlike his teammate, luck was not on his side. He dropped a cylinder while running in sixth, falling like an anchor before finishing 25th.

See also
Chase Overcomes Injury To Nearly Win Martinsville ... Briscoe That Is

Checking on the Lower Series Underdogs

I had the awesome privilege to report for Frontstretch at the Call811.com Before You Dig 250, and it did not disappoint.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series race was physical, with most cars ending the event with a donut on the door at the very least. However, several underdogs emerged at the end of the night.

Brett Moffitt was the first caution of the race when he got loose under Austin Hill in turns 3 and 4, sending him for a spin and putting him a lap down.

“We missed the lucky dog a few times,” Moffitt told Frontstretch after the race. “Once we got it though, we really got this Ford Mustang tuned in, and then it was just a track position battle.”

The AM Racing driver recovered for a strong ninth-place finish, scoring his third top 10 of the year.

Jordan Anderson Racing gave team owner Jordan Anderson a good birthday present, with both drivers scoring top 15s. Parker Retzlaff led the way, scoring his best finish since Daytona with an 11th-place run. Retzlaff said he struggled with braking and heat on the right-front tire, but he would still score a strong finish after qualifying fourth. Teammate Jeb Burton finished 14th, his second top 15 in a row.

Blaine Perkins scored his best finish of the season in the Our Motorsports’ No. 02 ride, and his 13th-place run was his first top 20 of the season. Perkins found himself on the receiving end of a few shoves throughout the night, but ultimately muscled his way to his third career top 15.

Rounding out the top 15 was Kaz Grala, who was coming off an impressive fourth-place run at Richmond Raceway. The Sam Hunt Racing driver said his cooling suit only worked to halfway, which left him exhausted following the race. Grala struggled with a tight-handling racecar for most of the event but worked his way into the top 15 by the end.

What They’re Saying

Stenhouse (eighth):

AJ Allmendinger (27th): “I thought we’d be OK for a while there running about 15th. We fired off so free and the rears just went away fast. We were able to hang onto it until I sped on pit road. Unfortunately, we just could never get back on the lead lap to get our track position back.”

Justin Haley (28th): “It was a tough race and physically challenging, just as it always is at Martinsville. We just fought free all day and lost rear grip in our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet. Our rear tires faded quickly, because we were so mechanically free. We were never able to take the wave around to get back on the lead lap, so unfortunately, we were just kind of stuck not able to get our track position back.”

Anthony Alfredo (35th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

As we get closer to summer, I’m starting to crave ice cream. Who am I kidding, I will take it any day, any season. That includes a slick Andy’s Frozen Custard paint scheme as well, and Live Fast Motorsports delivered this week. Anthony Alfredo piloted the ride for the team, suffering a loose wheel at one point that relegated him to 35th. Still, it is hard to beat an Andy’s livery.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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No, he is not an underdog sleeper. That “win” was a gift from NASCAR, looks to me like Logano won. But NASCAR never plays fair. Ugh, he will now forever be Trevor Bayne 2.0. You will never hear the end of it, no matter how much they sucked and suck!

Kurt Smith

You can’t seriously believe that Ricky Stenhouse has a legitimate shot at a championship. There are guys that I might call underdogs because they have been consistent and just haven’t been to victory lane in a while. Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney were much better over the course of the season than most of the drivers that made the playoff cut last year, and I think both of them are capable of winning a title.

Stenhouse is in the playoffs for a plate track win, which to me counts for nothing as far as driver or even team skill. Plate race finishes are always determined by luck and attrition.

The Martinsville finish was skewed because with the spec car making passing nearly impossible, teams got decent finishes through a pit strategy that worked out, as you pointed out. Hell that’s how Kyle Larson won it.

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