Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Kansas has become famous for many things. Whether it is “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Patrick Mahomes finding Travis Kelce in the end zone, or original Kansas City barbecue sauce, Kansas Speedway is on that list for motorsports fans.
No matter what your favorite barbecue sauce is (mine: Memphis-style, preferably), the Advent Health 400 (May 7) had all the flavors. There was some sweetness, some smokiness here and there, and plenty of spicy action during and after the race.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came out on the optimal side of things, continuing to build onto a strong year with a 12th-place finish at a track that appears to fit his taste.
Stenhouse immediately overcame an obstacle after he had to start at the rear of the field due to changing the water temperature gauge in his car. By lap 40, he had driven to 20th but slipped back outside the top 20 and went one lap down following a pit stop cycle. Stenhouse finished stage one in 25th, one lap behind.
Stage two was not much better as the Olive Branch, Miss. native was mired outside the top 25. His crew threw major adjustments at the car during the stage, and he caught a break with a caution on lap 137 that allowed the No. 47 to take the wave around with a 22-lap sprint to the stage end, where he wound up 21st.
Thanks to a late pit stop in stage two, Stenhouse stayed out during the stage break, allowing him to gain track position and lining him up in 12th for the restart.
The track position was a welcome sight for Stenhouse, who hung around 10th-14th throughout a flurry of cautions in the final stage. The restarts allowed Stenhouse to display his aggression and make some big moves to gain spots, hovering around 13th for the late run. Stenhouse would make a pass for 12th with just under 20 to go and took that to the finish.
While Kansas presents wide grooves and progressive banking that allowed Stenhouse to rim-ride, it hasn’t necessarily been kind to him, having earned only one top 10 there. However, it is his second finish of 12th or better in the last three races there and, in the larger picture, puts another notch down in a year of consistency for the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver.
In the past five races, Stenhouse’s worst finish is 15th. His 14.1 average finish is on pace to be a career-high and convincingly his highest at JTG-Daugherty. That average finish tops the current mark of former champions Kyle Larson (16.8), Brad Keselowski (15.3), Joey Logano (16.8) and Kyle Busch (14.8), and is good for the 10th-best average finish in the series thus far.
So how about that season-opening Daytona 500 win? It certainly was no fluke, and through 12 races, it looks as if it was a preview to a special season for this small team.
Digging through the numbers of Stenhouse’s season so far reveals some impressive stats. Behind him, AJ Allmendinger turned in his second consecutive solid performance with a 14th-place finish.
Allmendinger was up and down the leaderboard, getting stuck one lap down early on before getting back on the lead lap in stage two. Contact from Noah Gragson on a restart made his teammates hold their breath, but ultimately was not an issue. A bright spot for the veteran came when he stayed out late in stage two, and a caution to end the stage gave Allmendinger six stage points in fifth.
The 41-year-old drove from outside the top 20 on a restart with 72 laps remaining to the top 15, where he would remain for the remainder of the race, scoring a 14th-place finish. Outside of a sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500, it was a season-best result for Allmendinger.
It was Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate Justin Haley who may have had the comeback of the race (other than William Byron). With 39 laps to go in stage one, Haley had completed his pit stop but was forced to come back down with a loose wheel. That left him mired two laps down and outside the top 30 to finish the stage. But at the conclusion of the stage, Haley had to pit again with a flat left front tire while the pits were closed.
Thanks to the wild number of cautions throughout the race and the short runs, Haley was able to wave around and get the lucky dog to eventually get on the lead lap after running two laps down in 34th at one point. From there, it was a slow, methodical climb to the top 20 in the final stage that culminated in an 18th-place finish for the Winamac, Ind. native. It was Haley’s best finish at Kansas and his fifth top 20 of the year.
Rounding out the top 20 was Corey LaJoie, who turned in another solid result that has caught attention this season. LaJoie also had to start from the rear after replacing a right rear upper control arm, which helps with balance and stability in the rear of the car.
LaJoie used strategy to take the lead twice in the race, first in stage one and then again in the final stage. Despite having to use a couple of wave-arounds and overcome a penalty for pitting while the pits were closed (which also cost him the free pass), LaJoie was able to turn in the top 20 performance. It was LaJoie’s seventh top 20 this season and second at Kansas.
Who’s in the Dog House?
Sunday was looking like it was going to be a season-best run for Gragson. The Legacy Motor Club driver went from his 22nd starting spot to 12th during the race, displaying impressive speed from the high line. He was also able to use the late cautions in stage two to his advantage, finishing the stage in third.
But the final stage presented the fireworks for Gragson, who is not unfamiliar with on-track feuds. Unfortunately for the No. 42, he was racing with Ross Chastain with about 70 laps to go when Chastain slid up in turn four. The aero impact forced Gragson into the wall, who expressed his frustration with Chastain immediately. A few laps later, he spun off of turn two while running 20th. But it didn’t stop there.
Late in the race, Gragson slid up in the turn while Chastain was going by his lapped No.42, making Chastain feel his presence without wrecking him. That spilled into a post-race confrontation with the Trackhouse Racing driver, who connected on a punch after some brief words. Gragson ultimately finished 29th.
In 30th, Harrison Burton had a disappointing result after some early promise. Burton had gotten as high as 12th under green flag conditions, but on lap 191, he went for a spin while running 20th after avoiding a slow Chris Buescher. Fortunately, he guided his No. 21 away from any damage but cut a tire later on after Gragson went for his spin.
What They’re Saying
Allmendinger (14th): “I felt like we fought hard all day. We got the car closer overall, but we were still kind of fighting back and forth between loose and tight. The No. 16 Action Industries crew did a good job on strategy, making adjustments, and our pitstops were really good. We were able to get some stage points as well. Today was definitely something we can build on.”
Haley (18th): “We had an up and down day today. We fired off a little tight, but I was pretty optimistic about our No. 31 Celsius Camaro ZL1. Unfortunately, some pit road issues and a flat tire were indicative of our day. My crew chief, Trent (Owens), had a great strategy to get us back on the lead lap, but I felt like the flat tire did some damage early on to the splitter, so we just struggled the rest of the race. We will take a top 20 and head to Darlington next week, where we had a great run last year.”
Erik Jones (21st): “It was an okay day for the No. 43 Allegiant Chevy team. Just kind of up and down and kind of a lot of chaos. Got wrecked and ended up just finishing farther back than we wanted. We’ll take it, learn from it, and hopefully be better for next week.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Stenhouse was not only on top of the underdog house this week, but his scheme did too. The No. 47 had some cheesy goodness on the car this week, with Dillons Grocery and Kraft Mac and Cheese on the car for the 12th-place run.
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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