The last place this writer expected to find Ricky Stenhouse was walking out of a barber shop, but sure enough, that’s where he was when he picked up his phone.
“I got out of getting my haircut,” said the pride and joy of Olive Branch, Mississippi. “I missed your call. So I’m calling you back.” Now on his way to Arizona for this weekend’s running of the ISM Raceway 500 – the penultimate race of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season – Stenhouse is keen to close out the year in a tall gear, and join his new team JTG Daugherty Racing.
Unceremoniously dropped from Roush Fenway Racing last month, the two-time Xfinity Series champion and 2013 Cup Rookie of the Year has struggled in 2019 with an average finishing position posted up as 20.6, and top 10 finishes numbered at a lowly three. Undaunted, Stenhouse is up for the new racing challenges at hand and will use Sunday’s 312-lap affair in the outskirts of Phoenix as an opportunity to throw for end zone and come up with a big result.
Q: What do you think of ISM Raceway? Do you like running there?
RICKY STENHOUSE: I do. I’ve actually had some really good runs there and have been pretty consistent. Been in the top 15 every time we’ve been in the Cup car. In the Xfinity Series we ran in the top five just about every time that we went there. All in all it has been a solid race track for us. I do like to get out to Phoenix early. I’m going to get out there and play a little golf and take up the good weather, because it is getting chilly at home.
Q: A 1.022-low banked tri-oval with the corners banked at between eight to 11 degrees – it’s a unique track. Is it tough to hustle a Cup car there?
RS: Yeah, both ends are so different. Turns one and two are kind of sweeping and flat, while turns three and four are a little bit tighter and there is a little bit more bank. It definitely has its challenges, but we’ve been treating the racetracks with what I call a VHT/PJ1 compound that should give the top lane a little bit more grip. The bottom groove is the preferred groove at Phoenix, so for the most part, that’s where everyone wants to run. I think them putting the VHT down in the top groove will allow you run up there and make passes. The race is going to be a lot better because of it.
Q: The curtain is about to drop on the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. With only Phoenix and Homestead-Miami left to be run, what’s your take on it all?
RS: Yeah, the season was actually just disappointing because we had all these different issues. Not the same issue all of the time, but we definitely had issues throughout the whole year. We’ve been fast, and I think that’s been the frustrating part. I feel like we were a lot faster than where we finished. We want to take these last two weeks and finish where we feel like we should finish. We run well at Homestead and we run decent at Phoenix, and I think those are two racetracks that we can kind of cap the year off with and say peace out and look forward to 2020.
Q: You want to talk about your exit from Roush Fenway Racing?
RS: Yeah, yeah, it’s all good. I definitely didn’t see it coming. From all the talks and everything that we’ve had, my contract was through 2020/2021. It felt like that was the path that we were on, and what we were going to do. We were going to continue to get our cars better. That wasn’t the plan, I guess at least on their side. That obviously threw a wrench in things. For us, it was pretty late in the game. Luckily enough, I’ve had really good people working behind the scenes busting their butts for me in looking for another job, another ride and another opportunity. We landed at JTG Racing.
Q: What do you make of the JTG Daugherty Racing organization?
RS: Everything that I’ve dealt with them so far has been a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure. And I feel really good about the people that they over there and the ownership, the partnerships that they have on the cars. Like I said, they’ve been a breath of fresh air already. I’m looking forward to building on that over the off-season and hitting the ground running in 2020.
Q: How did the JTG deal come together? Did you have that opportunity in your back pocket or did you and your representation guys have to scramble?
RS: No, no we had to scramble! I guess you can say that we weren’t a frontrunner to get that job just because there had been people who had been talking to them. There were other guys looking for that ride as well. It was just a big scramble on my agents’ parts. The Kevin Harvick Management company busted their butts. They worked hard. Kevin helped out. We had a lot of people kind of reach out and help out. It was cool to see all the people who were behind me and ready to see something good.
Q: The team and its equipment… Do you feel that you’ll be competitive? Can you win races with them in 2020?
RS: Yeah, you know from the outside looking in, I like the direction JTG Daugherty Racing is going in. They have an alliance with Hendrick for some of their simulation and they get their engines from Hendrick. Chevrolet has a new Camaro body coming out next year, that I think that is going to be beneficial to the program. I think my ability and maybe some of the people I can bring over can continue to develop the team, and keep going in the direction that they’re going.
They’ve slowly gotten better and I feel like this year they’ve kind of been taking a lead and developing their own cars. I thought that was pretty impressive. You don’t think about them being a team that is building their own cars and bodies and things like that, but when you do those things, your quality control is a lot better than if you’re buying your stuff from somebody else. I feel really good about everything in place.
Q: And change can be good in racing, can’t it?
RS: Oh yeah. It definitely lights a fire under me. You lose a little bit of that spark when you’ve kind of been stuck in that same rut. You don’t really see a way or a plan to get better. So for me, a change of scenery and a change of people and just whole thing, I think it’s going to be a great fit.
Q: The exit from Roush Fenway Racing came rather abruptly. Have you spoken with Jack at all recently?
RS: Yeah, I’ve talked to Jack. Definitely not as much as I used to, but I tell people that the weekend that it happened, I kind of went through a lot of emotions. I was pissed-off, mad, shocked, and sad. It wasn’t for a few weeks until I can say that I was kind of relieved. Now I’m relieved and confident and looking forward to the future.
Q: What’s the master plan come Sunday?
RS: Since the announcement I feel like we’ve been really consistent. We’ve just been looking to finish these races off where we feel like we should. We just want to finish off these last two races strong.