Thursday’s motors: Tough Talladega suits Stenhouse

Detroit News staff and wires

Sometimes, it’s hate. Others, disdain. Usually, it’s just accepting you’ve lost before you ever arrive.

Or at least that’s long been the attitude NASCAR drivers harbor toward Talladega Superspeedway, one of the Cup Series’ most daunting tracks. The wrecks there, stupendous. And shockingly regular. If you make it through a Talladega race and don’t see a Big One, it’s no anomaly — it’s a half miracle.

So that drivers detest Talladega is understandable. Well, most drivers. But Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn’t most NASCAR drivers.

Stenhouse, who for a while was more well-known as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend than an accomplished driver, loves Talladega. And while we’re at it, Daytona International Speedway, too.

Both are two of NASCAR’s longest, toughest, most infamous (and most-infuriating) tracks. So why would Stenhouse love them?

Because he’s tamed them once before.

Last season, Stenhouse won his first two Cup Series races at Talladega and Daytona. Now, because those races are such crap shoots, it isn’t likely Stenhouse wins a second time. But what if?

“I’m looking forward to the return of a race that we won,” Stenhouse said this week of returning to Talladega next weekend. “Hopefully we can have some fun there.”

But fun shouldn’t be — and surely isn’t — Stenhouse’s lone priority in his Talladega return.

It should be winning, or at the least, running well. Basically, Stenhouse should be looking for opportunities to save his season.

Stenhouse is 18th in the points standings, which is neither that good nor that bad. It’s just fine. Average. Nothing to write home about. But Stenhouse actually sees it as worse than that.

“I feel like we’ve had a really bad start to the season,” Stenhouse said at a sponsorship extension announcement for his No. 17 team. “If I look at where we are in points versus how I feel we’ve ran, we’re in a pretty fortunate position right now.

“Hopefully we can kick off the 2018 season really right now after Bristol and kind of carry that momentum.”

Last weekend’s rain-delayed mess of a race actually turned out well for Stenhouse, who finished fourth and challenged for the lead late in the race. It was his first Top 10 finish this season. Otherwise, his best finish was 14th at Las Vegas.

“(Bristol) was what we needed,” Stenhouse said. “We show (what we’re capable of) from time to time, we’ve just got to get more consistent and be able to show it every week.”

In addition to his good showing at Bristol, Stenhouse announced that three of his chief sponsors — Sunny D, Fifth Third Bank, and Fastenal — have signed on through at least the 2021 season. That’s a boost of morale, Stenhouse said, that he expects to capitalize on.

Ironically, the reason Stenhouse likely earned those extensions was because of his performance at Talladega and Daytona last season.

So, Stenhouse has tamed Talladega and Daytona once before. They helped make his 2017 season his best yet. Now the question is whether or not they’ll help him resurrect 2018, too.

“We didn’t start the season how we wanted. If you want to look at it points-wise and the position that we’re in, we’re still very much in playoff talks,” Stenhouse said. “If we can have solid weeks, then we’ll still stay in the talk of those playoffs and being in there on points.

“We want to win. Winning is what we show up for each and every week. It doesn’t always pan out, but that’s the mentality we show up with.”

That mentality is nice and all, but it’s not enough anymore. Stenhouse has 20 more races to go before the playoffs, and those two tracks are probably his best shots at winning.

As Stenhouse was leaving his sponsorship announcement Tuesday, a group of reporters walked past to catch up with him. After a few minutes, one of them said something about when Stenhouse would get back to Victory Lane.

“Not yet,” Stenhouse quipped back as he walked away. “We’re going to at some point, though.”

Dixon tries to be TV ‘Ninja’

Scott Dixon will be the latest IndyCar driver to enter the realm of reality TV when he auditions in Indianapolis next week for “American Ninja Warrior.”

The four-time IndyCar champion, nicknamed “The Iceman,” thought it sounded fun when he was approached with the idea of trying out. As the competition has drawn near, Dixon is wondering what he got himself into.

Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan all auditioned for the show, which follows competitors as they tackle a series of obstacle courses in qualifying rounds across the country. None of IndyCar’s contestants advanced out of the first round, and neither did NASCAR driver Stenhouse.


FireKeepers Casino 400

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, June 10

TV: Fox

Support races: ARCA Series, 5:30 p.m., Friday, June 8; NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250, 1:30 p.m., Saturday, June 9

Consumers Energy 400

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12


Support race: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Corrigan Oil 200, 1 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11