Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Beats the Elements of Texas

Can you name the state song of Texas?

That would be “Texas, Oh Texas,” the official anthem of The Lone Star State.

The third line of the song says, “Boldest and grandest, Withstanding ev’ry test.” That was applicable for some drivers at the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway (Sept. 24), as the field of 36 strong had to withstand a multitude of tests.

They say everything gets bigger in Texas, and the heat was no exception this time, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at the 1.5-mile track.

With that challenge looming, it forced drivers to display the maximum amount of physical stamina. That is right up Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s alley, as he is one of the fittest drivers in the sport.

See also
William Byron Survives Wild Final Laps to Win at Texas

After a grueling 267 laps, the former American Ninja Warrior contestant outlasted his fellow underdogs, finishing in ninth one week after being eliminated from playoff contention.

It certainly wasn’t easy, as Stenhouse had to start in 24th. He suffered from the effects of dirty air and a hot track early on, finishing stage one in 27th. He slightly improved that in the second stage, finishing 23rd after dealing with loose-handling conditions.

The final stage was more of the same at first, as the No. 47 flirted with the top 20. However, a caution on lap 242 opened the door for Stenhouse to pounce. The team opted to stay out while several cars pitted, putting Stenhouse in 13th.

Two restarts later, the Olive Branch, Miss. native was 10th, where he would survive for the remainder of the race, improve to ninth and grab his second consecutive top 10.

Despite that playoff elimination in the Round of 16, Stenhouse continued to knock off more milestones. The result was his first top 10 at Texas in 19 attempts, making this the sixth track in 2023 where he has earned or equaled a career-best result. He also matched his previous career high for top 10s with nine, also tying JTG Daugherty’s record for top 10s in a single season, when AJ Allmendinger had nine in 2016.

In has certainly been a season to remember for the Daytona 500 winner, and with tracks like Talladega, Las Vegas and Homestead-Miami still on the agenda, it could get even better.

Who Impressed

Justin Haley was another beneficiary of the attrition in Fort Worth, Texas. After falling a lap down in stage one, the Kaulig Racing driver was able to receive the lucky dog. From there, it was a middling, quiet afternoon for Haley, with stage results of 17th and 22nd.

More adversity faced Haley to begin the final stage, as he received a penalty for an uncontrolled tire during the stage break pit stops. The No. 31 fought back inside the top 20 by the late stages of the race, capitalizing on others’ incidents to finish 13th. Haley ran the fastest lap of the race on three occasions en route to his first top 15 since July at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Michael McDowell joined Stenhouse in their first week of the playoff “break-up” after also being eliminated in the Round of 16. However, he too responded nicely with a solid weekend, culminating in a 15th-place run. McDowell set the tone in Saturday’s practice session, running the fastest single-lap time.

The Front Row Motorsports driver showed speed in the race, using strategy late in stage one to finish fifth. For nearly the first half of the second stage, he was also able to remain in the top five after staying out, running as high as second. Unfortunately, trouble hit in the final stage when McDowell dragged a hose out of the box, sending him to the rear. The No. 34 slowly recovered to grab the top 15 showing.

In not-so-breaking news, Carson Hocevar did it again: finished in the top 20. Hocevar showed steady speed throughout the race, running inside the top 15 for most of the event. Last week at Bristol, Hocevar finished 11th with a loose wheel at the end of the race. This time, the No. 42 smacked the wall in the final stage, bending a toe link. A bent toe link on a high-speed track? Not optimal, yet the 20-year-old found his way to soldier through it and grab his fourth straight top-20 result with Legacy Motor Club.

Ty Dillon had one of his most solid runs of the season with a 19th-place showing. Dillon flirted with the top 20 for most of the race before entering it in the final stage, hanging on to grab his fourth top 20 of the season.

Texas has been a place where Team Penske is typically fast. However, a look at the finishing order would show that it was actually the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing car topping the Penske trio, with Harrison Burton finishing 20th. A former Xfinity winner at Texas, Burton had a quietly clean race to earn his first top 20 since Michigan.

Who’s in the Dog House

While all of these drivers mentioned were able to capture solid runs, Erik Jones was the most impressive of the underdogs. Driving a car sponsored by “Dallas vs. Everybody,” it was Jones representing the non-playoff drivers versus the playoff field in Texas. There was no data needed to see that the No. 43 had speed, as Jones had one of the best cars of the race.

The “Byron Bandit” challenged around the top 10 for the first half of the race, but it was the second half where the strength came through (something Dallas Cowboys fans would have liked in their game). Jones got around Denny Hamlin in the final stage, leaving just Kyle Larson in his path for the lead.

When a caution flew on lap 242, it appeared to be the opportunity Jones needed. However, the team pitted in what was a questionable call to the naked eye.

The accidental move was costly. On lap 255, Jones was swept up in a pileup, effectively ending his day and leaving him in 30th.

It’s definitely not the result that Jones deserved, but it continues to create excitement for next season considering the recent trajectory of Legacy Motor Club.

Allmendinger was also caught up in that crash, as he was arguably second to Jones as the best underdog. The Kaulig veteran displayed top-10 speed all weekend, qualifying inside the top 10 and competing in the top 15 nearly all race. Yet the attrition of the race was too much, as the crash relegated Allmendinger to 29th.

Rick Ware Racing saw a bigger bill than they would have liked following the race. Both J.J. Yeley and Todd Gilliland, who was in the No. 51 this weekend, suffered race-ending crashes. Gilliland went out on lap 54 after losing a wheel, dropping him to 35th. Yeley spun into the wall on lap 242, bringing out a race-changing caution and leaving him in 32nd.

What They’re Saying

Haley (13th): “We brought a fast No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Camaro ZL1 to Texas. I was super happy with the handling from the start; we just started getting a little tight on the shorter runs. Once we overcame a pit-road penalty and had a longer run, we were so fast running similar times to the leader. It’s not quite the finish we had here last year, but it was still a really good day.”

Hocevar (16th): “Overall, it was a solid day for the No. 42 Sunseeker Resorts Chevy team. We got a good result there at the end. We were a top-10 to top-15 car all day. We either had a loose wheel or just got really loose and I hit the fence. I just made a mistake on my end. I hit the fence and knocked the toe link in and bent a lot of stuff. I was in survival mode and started to figure out how to drive it with everything broken and moving around in the rear-end. On the last restart, we gained a lot of spots that we really shouldn’t have on paper. But I’m really proud of this group. We had a really fast Chevy. Finishing 16th was better than we probably should have ended it with how torn up this thing is.”

Allmendinger (29th):

Jones (30th):

Gilliland (35th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Jones’ No. 43 Dallas vs. Everybody Chevrolet could be nicknamed “The Silver Bullet Jr.” this week. With a sleek, shining look carrying colors similar to the Dallas Cowboys, it was the perfect, Texas-sized scheme to hit the track.

About the author

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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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