It’s always a good day when Junior wins at Talladega.
Sunday’s GEICO 500 was no exception, even though the “Junior” in question was not exactly the one most fans had in mind.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., carried Roush Fenway Racing back to Victory Lane Sunday for the first time since June of 2014, starting on the pole and prevailing on a green-white-checked flag finish to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in 158 career starts.
Stenhouse’s upset victory puts his name at the top of a lengthy list of darkhorse victors at the 2.66-mile Alabama tri-oval, joining inaugural winner Richard Brickhouse, Dick Brooks, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard, Bobby Hillin, Jr. and Phil Parsons. Racing just 260 miles from his childhood home in Olive Branch, Mississippi, Stenhouse received a warm – if not quite Earnhardt-esque -- reception from the packed Talladega grandstand as he celebrated with team members, sponsors and girlfriend Danica Patrick in Victory Lane.
“This is for all the guys at the shop,” said Stenhouse. “Every race, we’re getting better and better. We knew Talladega was a good track for us. It’s been good in the past and I’m glad we parked it for my buddy, (the late) Bryan Clauson.
“This Fifth Third Bank Ford was so fast today. We qualified on the pole and got the win. It’s cool to have Jack Roush back in Victory Lane. This is cool. (It’s) the closest race track to my hometown and the fans were out here this weekend.”
Stenhouse’s win was the culmination of an early season competitive resurgence for Roush Fenway Racing, an organization that has had little to celebrate in recent seasons. The team contracted from three cars to two this season, allowing veteran Greg Biffle to seek his fortune elsewhere. Equally important were a series of management changes that revitalized RFR’s approach to winning races. Lifelong Roush man Robbie Reiser was reassigned from his post as General Manager; part of a long-overdue shift to newer, younger, more engineering-based minds.
The results have been impressive, to say the least.
Stenhouse’s win was his fourth Top-10 finish in the last five weeks; following a 10th at Martinsville, a ninth at Bristol and a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at Richmond. Teammate Trevor Bayne also contended for the win Sunday, before being eliminated in a 15-car backstretch melee with less than 20 laps to go. Bayne has recorded seven Top-15 finishes in 10 starts this season, and if the post-season playoffs began today, both Roush Fenway Racing drivers would receive tickets to the dance.
There is still a bit more work to do before RFR returns to the ranks of championship favorites, but Sunday’s GEICO 500 was proof positive that progress is being made.
"There was no panic,” stressed Jack Roush Sunday, beaming from beneath his trademark fedora in a raucous Talladega Victory Lane. “I've been a racer for nearly 60 years – 30 of them in NASCAR – and I've been in holes before.
“I've climbed out of every one of them.”
While never doubting his ability to rebound, Roush admitted that Sunday’s win “comes with some relief.”
“It doesn’t get any sweeter than this,” said a happy Stenhouse Sunday. “It’s awesome to finally finish it off. I look at our first 150 (races) and I can only hope that the next 150 are going to be kind of like Joey Logano’s. He’s had 300 races. The first 150 weren’t great, the next 150 were. Hopefully this is the start of that.
“Pulling into Victory Lane and seeing Jack and Danica standing there together, it was super special. They’re the same height,” he laughed. “She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spending more time at the shop (or the) need to…spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop. She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked, and to have her there was really awesome.
“Every race, we’re getting better and better,” he added. “My confidence has been really high all year. We know what race tracks we need to work on. I feel confident in the guys back at the shop, Brian (Pattie) and everyone. There are not many teams that pay attention to the details like the No. 17 team does.”