There are split focuses within Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s race team at JTG Daugherty.
One must first remember that Stenhouse is in his first season with the two-car organization. He and crew chief Brian Pattie both left Roush Fenway Racing after many years and stuck together to join Ryan Preece, Trent Owens, and the others under the roof Tad and Jodi Geschickter, and Brad Daugherty. And the season started with a week’s worth of attention by grabbing the Daytona 500 pole.
Then a global pandemic happened, and suddenly things got much tougher for a group still trying to gel with each other and build a contending team. After 18 races, Stenhouse has three top-10 finishes, and at 23rd in the standings is over 100 points behind the playoff bubble. But he still believes his No. 47 Chevrolet has speed and opportunities to succeed this year.
“I feel like we know what we’re capable of,” said Stenhouse ahead of Kansas Speedway. “We’ve just got to have things work out just a little bit better for us.”
The chemistry within the team is still an issue. Stenhouse hasn’t consistently seen most of the guys on his team because of COVID restrictions – not everyone is traveling to the track, and most drivers aren’t going into the race shops.
“At the beginning of the year, I was at the shop a lot and able to be around everybody,” said Stenhouse. “But when you’re doing things with limited people, I think we saw some struggles at the beginning of getting back racing that cost us some points and some good finishes. But I felt like we’ve rebounded well and had some strong runs.”
Stenhouse has an average finish of 21.3 with four DNFs. Losing by a hair to Ryan Blaney at Talladega Superspeedway last month has been his best result of the season.
“I see a lot of opportunity to get more top fives and top 10s, especially on these 1.5-mile racetracks. I feel like our cars are really good there,” said Stenhouse. “We still have room for improvement on landing the balance that we want at some of these racetracks, but I definitely see a lot of opportunity to run more consistent and further to the front than what we have so far this year. And I’m excited for it.
“I believe in everybody at JTG Daugherty Racing. They’re working hard, and they’re pumped up and excited for the speed that we’ve had so far. People probably thought we’d kind of struggle for speed given all the circumstances and switching seats and teams and all that. Still, I feel like we probably, on one hand, a few times this year have probably exceeded expectations and kind of surprised people. And then, on the other hand, we’ve got to get more consistent with that. So, I’m looking forward to the second half of the year.”
But Stenhouse is also looking at next year. Given the circumstances of how the ’20 season has unfolded, the Next Gen car has been pushed a year to 2022. Meaning, Stenhouse and his team are not only working to build a team that can contend in the present, but next year, too.
“When the news came out that we would still be running these cars, you’re still learning a lot and trying to make sure that going into next year, you have your best foot forward since we’re not switching cars,” he explained. “So, for one, we’re still learning and trying to get everything aligned for next year. But there’s still opportunities. When you look back at last weekend in Texas, I felt like we were a 10th or 12th place car. When my teammate and I got in that wreck, we flew back early, obviously, both out of the race, and we landed, and I heard the 3 team [Austin Dillon] won. And, I’m like dang, we outran them all race. So, there’s opportunities.
“You’ve just got to keep fighting. You never know how these races are going to play out. You’ve just got to keep putting yourself in position. I feel like we have speed that we can run inside the top 10 at these 1.5-mile tracks. And if you’re inside the top 10, you never know what will happen with race strategies and different pit calls. We’ve still got Daytona there, looming in the future that it would be cool to win, and you’d put yourself in the playoff there. So, we’re still working hard and looking for wins as well.”