Remember the scene from Days of Thunder when Harry Hogge tells Cole Trickle to go back on the track and hit the pace car because he’s already hit everything else? Well, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did his best Trickle impersonation in 2019. His crash-filled campaign ultimately cost him his ride in No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, but he found a new home with JTG Daugherty Racing as the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet for the 2020 season.
The move is likely a slight downgrade in terms of equipment, but for Stenhouse, his success will hinge largely on his own ability to rein in his aggressive style. He faced a similar situation earlier in his career when he was essentially benched for a couple of XFINITY races by Jack Roush after tearing up too many cars. Stenhouse responded, becoming a different driver and eventually winning back-to-back titles in the series.
His Cup career actually appeared to be on the upswing following a two-win campaign and a playoff berth in 2017, but old habits die hard, and Stenhouse regressed in a big way over the last two years. Will losing his job at RFR serve as another wake-up call and lead to a resurgent season, or will Stenhouse continue to tear up equipment while trying to get more speed out of his cars than they have to offer? We are about to find out.
While he hasn’t made any friends with his driving style, Stenhouse has been a legitimate force at the superspeedways over the last couple of years. He won at Daytona and Talladega in 2017, and seven of his 15 career Top 5s have come at the superspeedways. His 11.6 average finish at Talladega will stack up with any driver, and over the last 10 superspeedway races, he ranks fourth in the series in points scored. He’s also enjoyed his share of success at Bristol. He has four Top 5s and six Top 10s in 14 starts at the half-mile bullring, and his six Top 10s are his most at any track.
While he doesn’t have a long history of success, Stenhouse is coming off a solid season at the mile-and-a-half tracks. He cracked the Top 20 in nine of the 11 races, finishing 12th or better five times. Considering he posted those numbers in the first season with NASCAR’s low-horsepower, high-downforce package, there is a chance it could be a sign of things to come.
Did I mention that Stenhouse has a crashing problem? In fact, he led the series in crash frequency with an average of 0.58 incidents per race in 2019, according to Motorsports Analytics. It was the second consecutive season he has led the series in the category, and even in his breakout 2017 campaign, he ranked second in crash frequency. It is hard for any driver to overcome the loss of track position that results from a spin, and that’s assuming the damage suffered isn’t terminal. It is even harder for a driver for a mid-tier team.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong with 17th-place finish, especially for a driver like Stenhouse who isn’t blessed with elite equipment. Unfortunately, he rarely seems willing to take what the car will give him, and crashes, poor finishes and DNFs are the consequences. It has taken a toll on his overall numbers. After posting a career-best 17.1 average finish in 2017 and finishing 13th in points, he logged a 19.4 average finish in 2018 and a 20.5 average finish last season, finishing 18th and 23rd in points, respectively.
Chris Buescher showed last season that JTG Daugherty Racing equipment is good enough to run in the Top 20 on a weekly basis while delivering some Top 15s and an occasional Top 10. Stenhouse has every bit the talent of Buescher, but Buescher’s take-what-he-can get, stay-out-of-trouble style is a perfect fit for a mid-level team like JTG Daugherty Racing.
Stenhouse is constantly looking to get a Top 10 finish out of a 20th-place car, and I’m not sure he can ever change his naturally aggressive nature. Sure, his style allows him to overachieve at times, but it comes at a cost. Wrecked racecars can make it hard for a team like JTG Daugherty Racing to advance its program, and it makes Stenhouse tough for fantasy owners to trust. The risk is rarely worth the potential reward.
Outside of the superspeedways and Bristol, there are no tracks where Stenhouse is a must-own fantasy option. He could end up being a qualifying-dependent, GPP-only DFS play at the mile-and-a-half tracks if he is able to approach last year’s numbers, but that’s the best-case scenario. The car number and manufacturer might be different, but I’m expecting the 2020 version Stenhouse to be the same as the one we’ve become accustomed to seeing knock down the walls and run over other drivers.