The Wait Is Over
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earns his first Cup win in his 158th career start
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s long wait to become a race winner at NASCAR's highest level is over.
Stenhouse used a push from seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson during a two-lap overtime finish at Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway to rocket past leader Kyle Busch on the second-to-last lap. He then weaved his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford back and forth to block all coming advances and secure his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in his fifth full-time season.
"Look at our first 150 (starts) or so, and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano's," Stenhouse said after the win in his 158th Cup start. "He had 300 races, the first 150 weren't great, the next 150 were. Hopefully this is a start of that."
The win also snapped a drought for the RFR operation, a once-premier organization that won the 2003 and 2004 Cup championships but has fallen on rough times in the last four seasons as performance lagged and star drivers like Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth left. Team owner Jack Roush, now 75 years old and still wearing his trademark fedora, celebrated with Stenhouse in Victory Lane.
"It puts another chapter in that record, and we'll celebrate with the crew and with all the engine builders and everybody else that this is their first win," Roush said. "We'll celebrate the fact that they were there the day that Ricky won at Talladega in 2017."
Stenhouse already had a good weekend underway before the drop of Sunday's green flag after he edged Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the race's pole position Saturday afternoon, denying a largely partisan Earnhardt crowd of seeing its favorite driver score the top starting spot at the track where he leads all active drivers in career wins. Things were looking even better for Stenhouse when he found himself restarting the race on the inside line of leader Kyle Busch in overtime after a three-car crash with two laps left stalled the finish.
"We didn't really have a plan," Stenhouse said of the final green flag. "I learned a lot in the first stage when we were leading those 10 or 11 laps there with Brad (Keselowski) behind me, watching what he was doing to keep us out front. I was kind of just following where he was going, so I kind of learned a lot right there."
Whatever Stenhouse had learned, it paid off down the stretch. With Johnson repaying an earlier favor of bump drafting Stenhouse at the green flag -- in addition to trying to pass Busch himself -- Stenhouse got a significant run on the No. 18 at the exit of Turn 2 and went for the clinching pass.
"(Stenhouse) got a run from behind off of Turn 2, and I don't know what his help was or anything like that, but he actually ran into the back of me, and then you'd think that that momentum would propel me forward some, and he just turned left and went right by me," Busch said after crossing the finish line in third. "That was pretty impressive, I guess, or I was just that slow and in his way."
Stenhouse then held on to the lead for the final lap and a half, dancing back and forth with his steering wheel to prevent the pack from gaining too much momentum. At the line, Stenhouse cleared runner-up Jamie McMurray by more than a car length, as McMurray edged past Busch by mere inches for second.
"It's just get yourself in position and thank God at the end with the green‑white‑checker (that) we were in the first two rows," said Brian Pattie, Stenhouse's crew chief. "That's pretty much where you're going to win from."
Earnhardt lamented that fact after the race, one in which he finished 22nd after a late-race loose wheel forced his No. 88 to an unscheduled green flag pit stop.
"Everybody is just stuck side-by-side," Earnhardt said. "If you ain't in the first or second row, you really are just kind of riding behind them guys with nowhere, really, to go. You can't do much about it because the cars don't create the runs like they used to.
"I'd change a few things if I was the king of this deal. But, as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we'll keep going down the road with what we've got."