Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“Wow! Can we say it? Have you ever?”
That emotion was expressed by Darrell Waltrip following a wild battle for the lead in the 2009 All-Star Race, culminating with Waltrip’s iconic phrase, “Have you ever?”
Following the annual Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 29), no, DW, I have never.
The race proved an instant classic for the second consecutive year, boosting its status as one of the best races for the Next Gen car — maybe even the best.
In a race that was fated for postponement as soon as its scheduled May 28 date broke the dawn of morning, the Monday version included 16 cautions, 31 lead changes, a brief stoppage for rain, and finished just a tad short short of five hours long.
It was truly a race of comers and goers, with Ryan Blaney‘s dominance providing the one bit of consistency. But outside that, there weren’t too many characteristics that held up throughout the race’s entirety.
However, there was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Enjoying perhaps his best season yet, Stenhouse came into the Coca-Cola 600 with two top 10s in the past three 600s. He made that three out of four with a seventh-place result.
After starting 10th, Stenhouse spent the early part of the race feeling out his car, where he struggled with tight landing and loose-handling conditions throughout the corner. Still, he was able to earn a stage point in the first stage by ending up 10th.
Stage two reflected stage one for the most part, with the No. 47 hanging around the top 10, including taking some evasive measures to avoid incidents in the stage. In a strategy move toward the end of the frame, Stenhouse would pit to cycle himself to the lead to begin the third stage.
The Olive Branch, Miss. native held tough on the short run, but as the lap count hit 30, rear grip fell from Stenhouse’s car, causing him to slide to 15th. Fortunately, a caution on lap 231 allowed the team to make adjustments, and Stenhouse would re-enter the top 10 to eventually finish the stage in ninth.
With Tab Boyd coaching him from the spotters’ stand, Stenhouse showed his intermediate prowess, running seventh for the opening part of the final 100 laps. A wave of cautions beginning with just under 60 laps remaining saw Stenhouse bounce around but keep his Chevrolet inside the top 10.
Things finally “settled” down for the final 20-lap shootout, but perhaps the most intriguing battle was between Stenhouse and Kyle Busch for sixth. Busch would win out in a grapple that saw many close calls, but Stenhouse still held strong for his fifth top 10 of the season.
In his fourth season with JTG Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has now matched his top 10 total from last season, which was his highest with the team. He also has put a streak together of seven straight top 15s, the longest stretch of his career.
With a 13.5 average finish, Stenhouse is now tied for sixth in average finish among full-time drivers. There’s still plenty of racing left, but if you are sleeping on JTG Daugherty, you’re going to have to wake up to the team’s performance.
If you glance at the results this week, you may see the No. 38 inside the top 10. But as good of a job as Todd Gilliland has done in that car, it wasn’t him in the ride this week. That would be reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith. The 23-year-old wrapped up the top 10 in just his sixth Cup start.
Smith had to work his way up from outside the top 20, including going a lap down in stage two. However, after getting the free pass, improved adjustments on his car and multiple cautions, Smith had jumped to 15th by the end of the third stage. From there, the Front Row Motorsports driver kept his nose clean inside the top 15, and he would earn a strong first career top-10 run.
Like many races this season, AJ Allmendinger had to rebound from adversity to earn a solid finish. After suffering a penalty for equipment interference early in the race, Allmendinger had bounced back to the top 10 in the late going. However, on lap 363, Allmendinger was turned by Stenhouse while battling for 11th, causing him to scrub the wall and make contact with Harrison Burton.
Fortunately, it may have been a blessing in disguise. The Kaulig Racing driver was able to get fresh tires, going from 25th to 14th in the final 31 laps. That gives the 41-year-old three top 20s in the past four races.
Right behind Allmendinger was his racing “son,” Justin Haley, who had a solid day all around, running inside the top 15 or 20 for most of the race. The final stage showed just how strong his No. 31 was, as he held strong inside the top 15.
After avoiding a multi-car accident with 26 laps remaining, Haley found himself inside the top 10 for the final restart. Unfortunately, he would fall outside the top 10, but still record a respectable 15th-place showing. That marks three consecutive finishes of 18th or better for the Winamac, Ind. native.
In 16th, JJ Yeley showed some impressive speed from his No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford. As many cars fell victim to the attrition of NASCAR’s longest race, Yeley quietly marched through, battling some of the sport’s biggest names, including Joey Logano. On the final restart, the 46-year-old restarted inside the top 10 and held in there for the top-20 run. It is Yeley’s best intermediate finish since a 13th at Charlotte in 2007.
Like many races this season, Corey LaJoie quietly wrapped up the night with a strong finish in 17th. The Spire Motorsports driver hovered just outside the top 20 for most of the race, but as is key in the 600, he kept himself in it. That allowed him to earn his third top 20 in four events and contribute to a current career-best 19.1 average finish.
Who’s in the Dog House
Contrary to his Front Row Motorsports teammate, Michael McDowell‘s day quickly went south in the final stage. After making a pit stop, McDowell’s tire came off in turn 2, likely leading to a penalty and relegating McDowell to a 28th-place finish.
Legacy Motor Club had perhaps the most agonizing race. While no underdog as a driver, Jimmie Johnson made his third start of the season with the team. On lap 75, the seven-time Cup champion went for a spin, barely brushing the wall. But things would get worse.
Shortly after the conclusion of stage one, both Erik Jones and Noah Gragson hit debris on the track, puncturing holes in both cars’ radiators and forcing them to the garage, where Johnson had also taken his car for mechanical repairs.
Both Johnson and Gragson returned to the track, but on lap 164, the teammates collided, sending Johnson’s No. 84 for a spin. Both cars would eventually retire from the race, with Gragson credited with a 36th-place run and Johnson in 37th. Jones would return to the track and finish in 32nd, 59 laps down, a far cry from the speed he showed early on.
What They’re Saying
Haley (15th): “We fired off tight today, but the No. 31 team made some great adjustments and had good pit stops. We made it as high as eighth and thought we would get a top 10 there but just got shuffled at the end. A top 15 is not a bad day, but our car was by far the best car we’ve had all year. We made some major gains today as a team.”
Jones (32nd): “We had a fast No. 43 U.S. Air Force Chevy, but nothing to really show for it. Appreciate the U.S. Air Force and their support. Just hate that we had the radiator issue, but hopefully we’ll go to Gateway with the same speed and have a good day.”
Gragson (36th): “Bummer day for the No. 42 Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevy team. We made it through the first stage clean. Something went through the radiator. We replaced the radiator and the motor blew up. Just frustrating.
Thank you to Black Rifle Coffee Company and the Menusa family for coming out here. Wish we could have had a better run for them, but it was an honor to have Sgt. Menusa on the windshield. It makes this weekend all worth it. Wish we could have given him and his family a better run, but we’ll try again at Gateway.”
Small Team Scheme of the Week
As I heard Jamie McMurray say during the weekend, the Coca-Cola 600 weekend is arguably the best for paint schemes. That was no different for the underdogs, with many schemes running the red, white, and blue in recognition of Memorial Day.
Stenhouse’s No. 47 donned a special Kroger/Coca-Cola Creations scheme that stood out among its peers. On the window banner was the name of Sgt. Alessandro L. Plutino, who gave his life fighting for our country in Afghanistan in 2011.
To all of our veterans, active service members, and the families of those who gave their all, thank you. Words cannot express enough love.
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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