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We’ve seen this movie before, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is hoping for a different ending on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 is now the NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale and the JTG Daugherty Racing driver faces a must-win scenario to make the playoffs.
While that’s true of a lot of contenders, Stenhouse has two superspeedway victories and drove one of the most dominant cars in February during the Daytona 500 and in June at Talladega (where he finished second) — making him one of the favorites to earn a playoff spot in walk-off fashion.
“Yeah, we’re excited about it. The whole team is,” Stenhouse said during a Thursday media videoconference. “Everybody has been working hard on our superspeedway car – been polishing on it, massaging on it, getting it ready to go.
“I know that I’ve got a lot of confidence in what they build, and what we brought to Daytona earlier in the season was obviously really good, really fast and drove good. We were up in the top-5 and I made a mistake – went below the yellow line there on the back-straightaway. It really cost us a shot at winning the Daytona 500. But then we showed up to Talladega, put ourselves in position and just came up a couple inches short.”
Stenhouse, of course, will have to overcome several other desperate contenders and the perils of his own super-aggressive reputation at Daytona and Talladega.
The 32-year-old won the sprint Talladega and summer Daytona races in 2017 to qualify for the 10-race elimination showdown. He faced a must-win scenario in 2018 and aggressively triggered several multi-car incidents and left his peers vocally frustrated with him.
“I race every speedway race the same,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like we had a good strategy going into the 500 – be up front in all the stages, get stage points and just put yourself in the right positions to keep track position when it comes down to the end of the race.
“You don’t want to start a stage in the back. I think you definitely need to be up front. If you’re in the back, it’s not a killer, but it’s definitely going to make it a little more challenging. We’ll try to keep our track position, race aggressive and just stay up front.
“I treat the stages similar to the end of the race – kind of practice my moves, especially if I’m in the top-5, what moves can I make to get to that green-checkered finish at the point of where I want to. Gain positions and see if I can practice that twice before we get down to the actual checkered flag.”
Stenhouse enters the race 23rd in the standings with no other way in but to win. Meanwhile, Matt DiBenedetto holds the 15th spot by nine points and William Byron holds the 16th and final spot over Jimmie Johnson by four points.
A driver like Stenhouse, anyone who is 17th on back of the playoff grid, winning would eliminate the 16th driver on the provisional grid.
So, there are going to be a lot for Stenhouse to overcome in terms of desperate drivers for him to win his way in.
“There’s some big Richmond races that were pretty dramatic,” Stenhouse said. “I don’t know if we’ll top some of those, some controversies there.
“As far as throughout the race, who’s in and who’s out, I think that changes a lot. Especially with different leaders at different times and the points going back and forth with those three, it’s going to be crazy all the way down to the finish. I think it’s going to keep everybody on the edge of their seat, for sure.”
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