Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was an accomplished race-car driver before Sunday’s win at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
He won back-to-back Xfinity Series championships in 2011 and 2012 and received rookie of the year honors on the Xfinity and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but success in NASCAR’s top series proved elusive during his first four years as a full-time Cup Series driver with only 17 top-10 finishes and no victories in 148 career races.
Stenhouse, who drives the No. 17 Ford Fusion for Jack Roush Racing, had become known more for dating Danica Patrick than as a threat to win a checkered flag.
It’s a fact of life to which he’s grown accustomed.
“I don't mind being known as her boyfriend,” Stenhouse said. “She doesn’t mind being known as my girlfriend.”
Still, Stenhouse, 29, wants to be known as a contender as well — each week during the Cup Series season and for the ultimate prize come November’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The win at Talladega, which was the first vicory for Roush Racing since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in 2014, wasn’t an anomaly.
Only 10 starts into the 36-race season, Stenhouse already is one shy of his single-season records for top-five and top-10 finishes — four and six, respectively, set last season.
He’s now finished in the top 10 in four of the last five races — an encouraging early-season start for Stenhouse, who has never qualified for the NASCAR playoffs — but the icing was finally experiencing the thrill of victory.
“Doesn’t get any sweeter,” Stenhouse said. “I look at our first 150 (races) or so, and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano’s. He had 300 races — the first 150 weren’t great; the next 150 were. Hopefully, this is a start of that.”
Patrick, who was caught up a 16-car crash and didn’t finish Sunday’s race, was among the first to greet Stenhouse in victory lane.
“Pulling into victory lane and seeing Jack (Roush) and Danica standing there together — they’re the same height — it was super-special,” Stenhouse said. “She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spend more time at the shop, whether it’s we need to fly somewhere a little bit later because I need to spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop or want to go to dirt races or anything like that. She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked. To have her there was really awesome.”
This time, the spotlight shined far brighter on Stenhouse, which is seldom the case, but if he keeps winning racing things might balance out a bit.
“Last year, we started off the season pretty decent and then fell quite a bit,” Stenhouse said. “We were never really able to regain the speed we had at the beginning of the season. … This year, we’ve tried to stay on top of it and make sure we’re not bringing the same car to the track every week. We’re making sure we’re bringing a better car to the track every week.”
It’s working. Stenhouse’s average start (15.2) and average finish (14.1) are far and away better than his previous career-bests during a five-year career as a full-time Cup Series driver.
“Now, we’ve finally got all those pieces in place to make sure we can maintain that speed and maintain that performance,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve got a lot more confidence going to the track every week.”
He admitted that confidence waned in recent years, for him and probably among his crew as well.
“You get to a point over the last couple of years, I probably thought that (I may never win),” Stenhouse said.
Nonetheless, he approached 2017 with a fresh and optimistic mind-set, which has been rewarded as the series shifts Saturday evening to Kansas Speedway — historically, one of Stenhouse’s best tracks — for the Go Bowling 400.
His average starting position at Kansas (14.1) is second-best for his Cup career behind Atlanta (11.2) and his average finish is fourth-best behind Talladega, Bristol and Chicago.