TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a two-time champion of NASCAR’s top developmental series, successful at every rung along the way, with aspirations of helping an owner with whom he shares a long and tumultuous relationship back to full-time relevance.
But he has heard the preface for five years, since he began a romantic relationship with fellow competitor and mainstream icon Danica Patrick.
Leaning against a conference table a few weeks ago, his jaw tightened subtly as a question from a reporter on a teleconference box referenced how he was best known as being “Danica’s boyfriend.” He breathed deeply and delved quickly and fully into the crux of the question and how he felt he and Roush Fenway Racing were on the verge of something.
He was right.
He proved it Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. And for at least a while, he gets a new label: race winner. That restrictor-plate racing often produces unexpected winners — 11 drivers have claimed their first Cup race win at Talladega — doesn’t matter. Neither, he said, does it matter if he remains best known for his relationship.
Patrick was part of the welcoming party for Stenhouse on Sunday, and it was special, he said. Having wrecked out of the race after being caught in an 18-car maelstrom on lap 169 of a scheduled 188, she greeted him in street clothes in victory lane.
He expected their eventual victory lane photo would one day come with both in fire suits. But that was OK, too.
“Pulling into victory lane and Jack and Danica standing there together …. same height,” Stenhouse said, not able to resist needling boss Jack Roush. “She supports me through anything I need to do. … She’s been so supportive and knows how hard I’ve worked.”
Roush Fenway Racing, a juggernaut of the mid-naughts that captured consecutive championships with Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and absorbed half of the ten playoff spots available in 2005, has not had this kind of day in a while.
RFR, now a two-car outfit with Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne, had not won a Cup race since Carl Edwards’ victory at Sonoma Raceway in 2014.
There is no assurance that things are fixed. That six of the previous 10 first-timers at Talladega never won again can be troubling if dwelled upon for too long. But Stenhouse, a native of Olive Branch, Miss., left what he considers his home track as a member of the 16-driver playoff field. And that is progress.
It’s certainly something to celebrate for Roush, the sometimes-curmudgeonly owner, and Stenhouse, whom he removed from his Xfinity Series car as a rookie in 2010 and dispatched to the fabrication shop to learn how much was required in repairing the cars he was wrecking.
Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and 2012 before making his full-time Cup debut in 2013. The relationship has remained “warm,” as Stenhouse described it, saying that “Jack’s gotten soft in his old age. Back in the day, he used to yell at me a lot. But then he’s calmed down.”
“No question about that,” smiled RFR President Steve Newmark.
“I was a couple months on the job, and that was one of the more awkward meetings. We were up in Loudon, and this was when Jack was telling Ricky he was going to be out of the car — pulled out of the car — the next few races and he was going to be working in the shop,” Newmark said. “That was a little bit of a contentious meeting. But that was Jack’s approach to driver development that when these drivers got a little cavalier and didn’t take care of their equipment, — the idea is ‘Hey, I want you to see what your actions lead to.’”