NASCAR: Surprise driver primed for playoff upset?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JTG Daugherty Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JTG Daugherty Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

With the NASCAR Cup Series regular season now wrapped up, 16 drivers are officially locked into the playoffs, which are set to begin this weekend at Darlington Raceway.

As is the case during any NASCAR Cup Series season, there have been huge doses of unpredictability that have led to a few shock playoff entries, and more prominently, stunning misses in 2023.

Look no further than Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott. The 2020 Cup Series champion was the preseason championship favorite after a strong season in 2022, only to surprisingly miss the playoffs due to missing six races with a snowboarding injury and another while serving a suspension.

Even his teammate Alex Bowman, who led the points standings for the first time in his career early in the season, also didn’t make the postseason for the first time as a Hendrick Motorsports driver, due to the fact that he missed three races himself after suffering a fractured vertebrae in a sprint car accident.

But as the saying goes, another driver’s misfortune is another’s opportunity. Their lack of success this year has opened the door for other drivers, namely Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The 2011 and 2012 Xfinity Series champion locked himself into the playoffs for the first time since 2017 when he won the Daytona 500 to start the season. The once unlikely playoff qualifier has a significantly better chance to do some damage with two big names out of the picture before the green flag even drops on NASCAR’s postseason.

Since his Daytona 500 victory, Stenhouse has only scored one additional top five finish and just five other top 10 finishes. Having finished in 17th place or worse in five of the seven most recent races, it’s easy to see why many view him as a round of 16 exit.

FanDuel Sportsbook, which is offering fans $200 for placing a single $5 bet, lists him with the longest championship odds among the 16 playoff drivers at +10000.

But the first round of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs features some of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s best non-superspeedway tracks.

Stenhouse has often been seen as a superspeedway merchant: an over-aggressive, niche driver who can only find success on full throttle tracks with chaotic racing.

After all, he has won just three races in a full-time career that began in 2013, and all three wins have come at either Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway.

But that doesn’t mean he is only good at those tracks.

Throughout his time at NASCAR’s top level, he has only ever raced in below-par machinery at the since rebuilt RFK Racing stable, formerly known as Roush Fenway Racing, and now JTG Daugherty Racing.

Drivers in noncompetitive cars are forced to take every chance they get at Daytona and Talladega because those tracks provide them with their only true shot at winning.

Even with that in mind, Stenhouse has still had several solid runs each season, and he has scored several top five and top 10 finishes at different types of circuits, none more so than Bristol Motor Speedway.

Since becoming a full-time driver in 2013, Stenhouse has recorded four top five finishes and six top 10 finishes at Bristol, both of which are the most he has recorded at any track aside from Talladega. During that timeframe, he finished in both second and fourth place twice at the track, and he did so for a then-struggling Roush Fenway Racing team.

In fact, Stenhouse’s only other top five finish this season came at Bristol. Yes, it was on the dirt version of the track, but it’s clear that the Olive Branch, Mississippi native is confident on the high banks of the four-turn, 0.533-mile (0.858-kilometer) Bristol, Tennessee oval, whether the race is held during the day or night or run on concrete or dirt.

Aside from Bristol, the other two tracks featured in the opening round of the playoffs have also treated the JTG Daugherty Racing driver kindly this year. He scored a very respectable 13th place finish at Darlington Raceway in May and finished in 12th at Kansas Speedway in May as well.

While those results aren’t spectacular, they are very solid considering his machinery and his previous results at those two tracks, signaling good improvement.

With Bristol scheduled to host the final race of the round of 16, a win at his best conventional track, or even the third of a string of three solid results, could result in him knocking out another big name such as Kevin Harvick, who finds himself below the round of 12 cut line entering Darlington.

And should Stenhouse make it into the round of 12, he would have serious potential to advance even further to the round of 8.

With the second round of the playoffs being deemed by many as the “chaos round”, featuring Talladega, the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, and even Texas Motor Speedway after its infamous tire blowout fiasco in last year’s playoff race, anything is possible for every one of the 12 drivers still in contention.

Talladega is by far Stenhouse’s best track, as he has recorded a win, six top five finishes, and nine top 10 finishes there over the years. With his success there and his aggressive style being heavily suited to what’s needed in a postseason superspeedway race, a Stenhouse win at that event and a subsequent round of 8 appearance is entirely possible.

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It would instantly give him his best career season-result, and it would also send shockwaves throughout the playoff grid, presumably knocking another big name out of the running for a Cup Series championship.