Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Drafting Prowess Shines Through for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in Atlanta

As we get into “The Underdog House” this season, the question arises on who an underdog is in the NASCAR Cup Series and how they are included in this column. At the end of this column, you can find a list of teams and drivers who will be included in this weekly analysis. Underdogs are determined based on whether they have had sustained success or not, if the team lacks the resources or strength of the major teams, and potentially if a driver missed the playoffs and missed the top 20 in points the previous season.

Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Wow! That’s about as much as I can say to describe the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Feb. 25). In nearly two decades of watching NASCAR since I was a toddler, that was truly one of the best races I have ever seen.

For the underdogs, the potential top dog position mirrored that of the battle for race control. As one underdog looked as if they were going to assume control of the dark horses, circumstances quickly changed, typical of superspeedway racing.

As attrition wore on and brought the race to its closing stages, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. emerged in the thick of the chaos. The 2023 Daytona 500 champion quietly worked his way up to the front, scoring a sixth-place finish.

Stenhouse’s result was a drastic shift from what it was shaping up to be mid-race. Lost in the frenzy of a tumultuous green flag pit stop cycle was the fact that Stenhouse was among several drivers caught by the pit road police for speeding. With the penalty coming on lap 140, just over 100 laps from the checkered flag, it was a tall order for the 36-year-old to overcome.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: Pit Entry Calamity in the Peach State

The Olive Branch, Miss. native would get back on the lead lap in the final stage, and the aid of several cautions got him back in the race little by little.

With just over 10 laps remaining, a caution flew for an incident involving Chase Elliott and Josh Berry. And what seemed to occur out of the blue was Stenhouse sitting just outside the top five in sixth.

In the closing laps, Stenhouse kept himself in the hunt but was boxed on all sides, preventing him from making a charge for the win. Still, he was able to keep his nose clean and grab a crucial top-10 result a week after crashing in the Daytona 500.

Keeping his nose clean proved to be more valuable than assumed on paper. Stenhouse was one of just three drivers who were not involved in an incident during the race. The other two were Ryan Blaney and Austin Cindric, who finished second and fourth, respectively.

A few years ago, Stenhouse’s aggression got himself and others into trouble a few times. Now, a wiser and seasoned veteran has established himself as the one of the masters of the draft, and it resulted in an excellent showing for the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver.

How Does it Compare?

Looking at Atlanta races since 2000, there have not necessarily been any underdog winners at the track. There have been some who were in the midst of underwhelming seasons or were new to the Cup scene, but all of those drivers were in strong equipment or established winners.

However, quite a few drivers were just a notch above Stenhouse’s run. Most recently, Corey LaJoie turned in a pair of top fives between the 2022 spring race (fifth) and 2023 spring race (fourth). Erik Jones also finished fourth in the 2022 summer race.

While these examples focus on finishes, Dave Blaney may have just put the best underdog run together at AMS since the turn of the century. Driving Bill Davis Racing’s No. 93, Blaney led a career-high 70 laps and looked very capable of scoring the victory. Unfortunately, a vibration led to a lost wheel that derailed his day with 100 laps to go.

Notable Underdog Runs

Harrison Burton had a nice recovery from a Daytona 500 that ended way too early for him. The Wood Brothers Racing driver stayed in the mix all day long, finishing 11th. How did he earn it? He just had to overcome two spins, including one that came from a 16-car incident on lap 2. Overall, it was a strong run for the third-year driver, who ran in the top five at times and scored an eighth-place finish in stage two. It is Burton’s best result in the first dozen races of a season in his young career thus far.

Like many drivers, LaJoie had to overcome crash damage and more to score a solid finish, as he came home 13th. After running in the lead pack for much of the race, LaJoie was caught up in a Nos. 5-6-7 stack-up on lap 220 following contact between Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski.

The nose of LaJoie’s Chevrolet was punched in, but the repairs and attrition of the race allowed LaJoie to back up a career-best finish last week with a top 15 at one of his best tracks recently.

See the theme of drivers overcoming issues to grab solid results? Let’s continue it with Kaz Grala. Grala drove the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing this week after competing for Front Row Motorsports a week ago. While running inside the top 10 on lap 176, Grala was sandwiched between Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez, causing him to lose control and spin. However, Grala would recover to finish 14th, his third career top 15 in nine Cup starts.

A trio of drivers to wrap up the top 20 all recovered from issues. Daniel Hemric (18th) was involved in the lap 2 crash, but rebounded for his second consecutive top 20. Carson Hocevar (19th) received a hard shot from a spinning Berry with 12 to go, but grabbed his first top 20 of the season. And Justin Haley (20th) spun on lap 241 while avoiding a multi-car accident, yet he was also able to secure his first top 20 with RWR.

See also
Front Row Motorsports Comes Up a Few Rows Short

However, Todd Gilliland arguably had one of the most heartbreaking results. While Michael McDowell received most of the attention at FRM, Gilliland had a career day. He led a career-high 58 laps, scored six stage points and looked like one of the strongest cars all day. Unfortunately, he was involved in the lap 241 incident and was forced to pit under green shortly after, relegating him to 26th. Still, it was an incredible run for a driver who has felt underrated since he came to Cup. And for your fun stat of the day, he leads the series in laps led with 74 after two weeks.

What They’re Saying

Stenhouse (sixth): “Man, just happy to get out of here with missing a few of those wrecks. They were right in front of us. But it was a lot of fun. Obviously three-wide there at the end coming to the line. I wish we were a few spots better, but all-in-all, it was a super cool race. I think the fans got their money’s worth.” (via Chevrolet’s race recap)

Gilliland (26th):

Josh Williams (37th):

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

This week, it was Stenhouse landing the gold medal, with McDowell taking silver and Burton grabbing bronze. That gives six drivers a medal in the first two races after LaJoie earned gold in the Daytona 500, AJ Allmendinger earned silver and John Hunter Nemechek secured bronze.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Williams represented longtime sponsor Alloy Employer Services in his regular season debut with Kaulig Racing, with the blue and yellow number popping out on a scheme similar to his Xfinity car. Unfortantely, his day was short-lived after he was swept up in the lap 2 pileup.

2024 Cup Underdogs

Spire Motorsports (LaJoie, Hocevar, Zane Smith)

Rick Ware Racing (Haley, No. 15 rotation)

Kaulig Racing (Hemric, No. 16 rotation)

Wood Brothers Racing (Burton)

Gilliland (McDowell taken off due to sustained success)

Legacy Motor Club (Jones, Nemechek, Jimmie Johnson)

JTG-Daugherty Racing (Stenhouse)

Live Fast Motorsports

NY Racing

RFK Racing’s No. 60

Beard Motorsports

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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janice

that race sunday looked how i285 looks here in atlanta just about every day. i’ve never seen so many wrecks at ams. are there that many “rookie” drivers this year? chase elliott couldn’t get out of his own way. maybe he needs some time with a sports psychologist to get his head back into the game. that 4 wide racing looked good but oh so dangerous.

got to remember ams has had some incredibly close finished. yesterday was a great finish.

DoninAjax

I guess you figured out why I call the events at RP tracks “traffic jams”.

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