Given the struggles in recent seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, can you blame Ricky Stenhouse Jr. if he’s getting a little excited with how the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season has started? It would be hard not to.
Last season was particularly difficult for the Roush organization with its three drivers – Greg Biffle, Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne – combining for no wins, no poles and four top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 36 races.
A slew of new personnel additions this past offseason raised hope that changes were on the way in performance, but not many expected to see the almost immediate effect just three race weekends into the season.
"We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves and think we’ve got it figured out. We’ve still got a long ways to go"
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Improvement has been visibly improved from how fast team cars are from the moment cars are unloaded each weekend at the track to actual improved results in qualifying and the race.
Admittedly the same size thus far is extremely small, which is why Stenhouse – who already has a top-10 finish this season – remains cautiously optimistic.
“We went to Daytona and the cars were fast. We qualified well. We didn’t get the results that we wanted to in the race, but the cars were fast. Everybody was like, ‘Oh man, that’s great.’ I was like, ‘Hey, this is one race and it was a superspeedway race,’ ” Stenhouse said.
“Then, we get to Atlanta and we were fast and felt good and all throughout the weekend I was like, ‘Man, I just hope tomorrow goes as well as today did,’ and we just kind of took it one day at a time. Again, we had a good race at Atlanta.”
Still, Stenhouse said, he arrived on Thursday for a test at Las Vegas still a little nervous over whether speed would remain in his No. 17 Ford.
And once again, it has remained consistent through the test, qualifying and practice sessions on Friday and Saturday.
“We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves and think we’ve got it figured out. We’ve still got a long ways to go because we want to be back winning and we want to be running in the top-five consistently,” he said.
“So, I’m definitely happy with our top-10 last week, but you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.”
Looking forward towards Las Vegas
Stenhouse will start 16th in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 – best among the Roush cars. Biffle (26th) and Bayne (28th) had more difficulty this week.
The race will be challenging for all – NASCAR’s new low-downforce package is still in its infancy and race could see winds gusts that could top 40 mph at times.
Overcoming some or all of those challenges this week – or at least dealing with them effectively during the race – could prove another stepping stone on Roush’s progress this season.
The changes already taken place, Stenhouse said, are a much-needed boost for everyone who has worked hard the last couple of seasons trying to improve the organization’s performance on the track.
“Over the last few years we were doing a lot of work and the team was doing a lot of work, but we didn’t really feel any difference in the race cars and we didn’t see any speed difference in the race cars,” he said.
“Last year going throughout the year we could start to see a difference, and I think that’s the first time since I’ve been on the Cup side that I’ve actually felt a difference in the cars and continuing to get better.
“There’s a big positive vibe going on throughout the shop and hopefully we can keep that up.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has come out of the gate strong to kick off the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver comes into Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after a good performance in the Daytona 500 followed by a top-10 finish last week in Atlanta.
After an off-season full of changes within the RFR organization, Stenhouse Jr. believes the early portion of the season is indicative of the hard work and what’s to come.
“Last week was really good for us. We kind of hoped to start that way, but we weren’t real sure how that was going play out until we actually got to Atlanta,” Stenhouse said. “But, all in all, we were really happy with how qualifying went and practice and then how everything translated to the race.
“There are some things we need to clean up. I think we could have finished a few spots higher, but the cars were fast, and they handled good.”
The Roush team’s struggles have been well documented as have Stenhouse Jr.’s frustrations since moving into the Sprint Cup Series after winning back-to-back XFINITY Series championships.
However there was light at the end of the tunnel last year when Stenhouse Jr. saw marked improvement over how things went in the first half of the campaign.
“We were going in the right direction at the end of the year and I think all the things that we learned throughout last year and the things that we implemented to our cars and to our system, the people that we implemented brought over some more information,” he said. “All of that just kind of kept playing into the way we ended the year last year, so it kind of made us more motivated and pretty happy with the group of people we’ve got, and really believe in the direction we’re going.
“You can see that throughout the shop. The drivers, we feel it. We drive it now and can see a difference and I think that was the biggest thing for us drivers.”
However while that optimism appears to be flowing throughout the Roush camp, Stenhouse Jr. fully understands there’s a long road ahead to become competitive on a regular basis.
“We’ve still got a long ways to go because we want to be back winning, and we want to be running in the top five consistently,” he said. “So I’m definitely happy with our top 10 last week, but, like you said, you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself.”
His next chance comes in Sunday’s race, the second using a new lower aerodynamic downforce rules package that made its debut last week in Atlanta.
Stenhouse Jr. has high hopes for both the race and the package but knows this week’s will be a whole lot different from Atlanta.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the race ends up playing out here in Las Vegas with the lower downforce package,” he said after Thursday’s open practice sessions. “I ran around some cars today to try to get a feel for that. The Fastenal Ford felt decent today. We didn’t do any qualifying runs at the end like a lot of cars did there, but so far so good.
“We definitely have a lot more speed than we had to start the year last year or even to end the year last year, so that was a big positive vibe going on throughout the shop and hopefully we can keep that up."