NASCAR Barometer: Stenhouse Survives to Win

NASCAR Barometer: Stenhouse Survives to Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. used his powerful Ford engine and a late-race restart to overcome Kyle Busch on a green-white-checkered finish to land his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series victory in Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. He started the race from pole, narrowly escaped "the big one" and continued pushing until the finish to mark Roush Fenway Racing's return to Victory Lane. He had to hold off Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and others to get the job done, but once he was pushed clear of Busch it was his race to lose. The victory was the first for the Roush organization since Carl Edwards took the checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway in 2014.

The race featured strong performances from the Ford-powered teams and marked another round where the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were shut out. Kyle Busch looked like victory's heir apparent in the final laps only to have a late-race crash from Ryan Newman force a restart, which gave Stenhouse the opening he needed to put his foot in the door. A push from Bristol winner, Jimmie Johnson, gave him just the boost he needed to clear the No. 18, and then all he had to do was block the drivers behind him. It was a breakthrough win for a driver and team that have toiled in the mid-pack for too long.

UPGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse flawlessly started Sunday's race, leading the field to green from the pole position he earned Saturday afternoon en route

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. used his powerful Ford engine and a late-race restart to overcome Kyle Busch on a green-white-checkered finish to land his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series victory in Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. He started the race from pole, narrowly escaped "the big one" and continued pushing until the finish to mark Roush Fenway Racing's return to Victory Lane. He had to hold off Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and others to get the job done, but once he was pushed clear of Busch it was his race to lose. The victory was the first for the Roush organization since Carl Edwards took the checkered flag at Sonoma Raceway in 2014.

The race featured strong performances from the Ford-powered teams and marked another round where the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were shut out. Kyle Busch looked like victory's heir apparent in the final laps only to have a late-race crash from Ryan Newman force a restart, which gave Stenhouse the opening he needed to put his foot in the door. A push from Bristol winner, Jimmie Johnson, gave him just the boost he needed to clear the No. 18, and then all he had to do was block the drivers behind him. It was a breakthrough win for a driver and team that have toiled in the mid-pack for too long.

UPGRADE

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse flawlessly started Sunday's race, leading the field to green from the pole position he earned Saturday afternoon en route to capturing his first victory in the series. It was a masterful performance from the Roush Fenway Racing driver who capped the organization's return to the top of the order after a number of soul-searching seasons. The Ford driver had the fastest car in the closing laps and exploited the final restart to overtake Kyle Busch and get a much-needed shot in the arm for him and the team. He'll need the momentum from last week's win to boost his result next week at Kansas where he has yet to finish in the top 10 in eight career tries.

Kyle Busch – Yet again, Busch had a car capable of winning. He dominated restarts and held off the field. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has only been kept out of Victory Lane this season by poor luck, and a late restart allowing Stenhouse to close the gap at the finish kept that bad luck streak alive. The car and team have been more than capable of success but just haven't had all of the pieces fall into place yet. Busch won the spring Kansas race last season leading 69 laps, and his chance to celebrate a win will no doubt come shortly. This team and driver continue to be on the cusp of success, and many are likely to follow once that levee is breached.

Denny Hamlin – Before the season began, fans would have been forgiven if they wagered against Hamlin not winning a race or even a stage at this point. He threw the monkey off of his back in the second stage at Talladega, however. That stage win was his first of the season, and he used that positioning to stay in the top 10 on the final green-white-checkered finish of the race. He slipped two positions (from ninth to 11th) in the final laps but reaffirmed the belief that a win isn't far out of his grasp. He finished 15th at Kansas last season and has only led one lap at the track in the last eight events, but fantasy players should expect Gibbs to be strong this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – A wheel problem put Earnhardt in a hole at the worst possible moment on Sunday. Late in the race the team discovered the problem that made him uncomfortable all afternoon, but their fix came with less than 10 laps remaining in the race. It was a disappointment considering his car had the speed to fight for the win. Instead, despite being a contender throughout the afternoon, he came home 22nd. Still, Sunday should be a confidence booster heading into the next race. In 20 Kansas starts, Earnhardt has a best finish of second from 2011. He finished 21st and 15th at the track last season and is still searching for his first win of 2017.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski won the first stage at Talladega after starting the race third but didn't finish the race quite as strongly. The Ford-powered machines were some of the fastest rides on Sunday and virtually commanded the opening segment. Everything looked great for the No. 2 until a multicar crash gave him significant damage to overcome. The team didn't fail to deliver, however, and finished seventh in what could have been a disastrous day. Keselowski was a resident in the lead pack in the final laps. He crashed out of last year's Kansas race after leading one lap but does have a win at the track from 2011 and has led laps in each of the last seven races at the venue.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Larson – A blown tire and contact with the outside wall brought out the first caution of Sunday's race and didn't do Larson any favors in his bid to win his second race of the season. Problems only compounded for the No. 42 machine after the contact, and the points leader spent a lot of time on pit road. Attrition earned him some extra spots in the finishing order, but every position gained only limited the damage already done. It was ultimately a disappointing day for one of the best drivers this season. Next week brings another chance, however. His best Kansas finish was a runner-up effort in his second visit to the track in 2014. He failed to finish in the top 30 in both outings there last season.

Joey Logano – Just one week after seeming to win and put one foot in the season-ending playoffs Logano now finds himself without that playoff entry and a crash out of Sunday's GEICO 500. An illegal suspension was what befell his Richmond win, and Logano now has the distinction of being the first driver to have an "encumbered" victory that won't count in the playoffs. He was racing well on Sunday only to be eliminated in the traditional massive Talladega wreck and now finds himself still on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Some optimism could be around this team, however. Logano has been racing well all season and he has two victories at Kansas. He finished third there in the fall and is still looking for that 2017 playoff entry.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney was squeezed on the back straight late in Sunday's race and connected with the outside wall, spinning out of contention in a race in which he had worked hard to remain. The damage was enough to force him to pit road for extensive repairs while the field was under caution, and ultimately sent him to the garage to retire from Sunday's race. It was a bitter pill to swallow again at a superspeedway where he has shown promise and just needs the luck to combine with his talent. He's young driver that remains on the cusp of victory but simply needs that edge to get the job done. He has just one finish outside of the top 15 at Kansas and led five laps in the fall race in 2015.

Chase Elliott – For yet another week the promising Elliott was locked out of Victory Lane when a bump from A.J. Allmendinger sent the No. 24 car spinning into the wall in a multicar wreck. The young driver had been running solidly inside the top 10 throughout the afternoon and was poised to battle for the win as the miles wound down. Elliott finished ninth in the spring Kansas race last season and led four laps in the fall before succumbing to a 31st-place finish. Fantasy players should expect what they normally do from Elliott this week, a solid, consistent Kansas performance. He's still in search of his first Cup series victory, and with continued performances like the ones so far in 2017, it shouldn't be long before he adds a notch to his belt.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Aric Almirola – Almirola delivered the biggest surprise for the second week in a row with his fourth-place finish at Talladega. The top-five was his second of the season and his second consecutive top-10 after finishing ninth two weeks ago. The former Cup winner is gaining confidence and now boasts three top-10 finishes in 10 races, which is more than he had in the entirety of 2016. It's already one of Almirola's best seasons, and we still have more than 20 races remaining. Fantasy players have come to rely on him as a fourth or fifth driver, depending on the format, and have been rewarded so far. Look for another top return in Kansas where he has three top-10s from 10 starts.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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