In a race that was full of storylines from Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last race at Daytona as a full-time Cup Series driver, to restrictor-plate mayhem, and plenty of fireworks on and off the track; Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. stole the show in the Coke Zero 400.
Stenhouse, Jr. emerged late in Saturday Night’s annual pre-fourth of July race at Daytona to win his second career Cup Series event, which was also his second of the season. His first career victory came earlier this season in the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The Olive Branch, Mississippi native survived a number of multi-car accidents to take the lead in the closing laps and never looked back. Stenhouse, Jr. put on quite a display approaching the checkered flag keeping his competitors behind him en route to victory.
It’s no secret that Roush-Fenway Racing has struggled in recent years, but both Stenhouse, Jr. and his teammate, Trevor Bayne have had strong cars coupled with several strong performances. Both have struggled at times with mechanical problems and being caught up in accidents, but the RFR organization as a whole has shown great improvements compared to previous seasons.
After 17 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series events, Stenhouse, Jr. and Trevor Bayne sit 16th and 19th respectively in the points standings. The only major differences in their seasons are that Stenhouse, Jr. now has two victories and Bayne has yet to find victory lane.
With only nine MENCS events remaining before the playoffs, the question arises…is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. a threat for winning the 2017 championship?
Aside from his two victories, Stenhouse, Jr. has only placed in the top-five one other time and has four top-10’s, while having an average finish of 15.5.
One might look at those stats and say that Stenhouse, Jr. has no chance at winning the championship although he has qualified for his first NASCAR playoff with his two victories. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the No. 17 team will be competing for the championship after the Richmond race in September (NASCAR’s final event before the playoff begins).
Should Stenhouse, Jr. advance through the opening round of the playoffs, he could find himself in prime position to advance to the championship round at Homestead if he’s able to win at Talladega. Stenhouse, Jr. has raced very well at restrictor-plate race tracks this year, winning at both Talladega and Daytona.
With the new race and playoff formats this year, bonus points are incredibly important for those that hope to hoist the championship trophy at the conclusion of the season finale at Homestead.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and his team will have to continue to improve as the 2017 season progresses but with the performances he has put together in the last two restrictor-plate races, I might pencil him in as a darkhorse to be crowned this year’s champion.
It’s important for both he and his team to put together quality finishes once the playoffs start, but with a little luck and a win at the fall Talladega race, Stenhouse, Jr., and team may be in the position to make some significant noise in the playoffs.
No matter how the rest of the season unfolds, both Stenhouse, Jr. and the RFR organization will have some positive points to build on as they work through the offseason and prepare for 2018.
Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images