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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. heads to Bristol buoyed by good run at Charlotte

UPDATED: Sat., May 30, 2020

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix Raceway, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Avondale, Ariz. (Ralph Freso / AP)
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during driver introductions prior to the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix Raceway, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Avondale, Ariz. (Ralph Freso / AP)
By Jenna Fryer Associated Press

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could not have had a bumpier return to racing after NASCAR’s 10-week shutdown.

How bad was it? Stenhouse crashed on the first lap of the first race back and finished last.

He followed it with a 25th-place finish at the second Cup race at Darlington Raceway, then was 24th in the Coca-Cola 600. In three races, Stenhouse plummeted seven spots in the standings to 24th.

Stenhouse finally snapped out of it Thursday night in a second visit to Charlotte (North Carolina) Motor Speedway with a fourth-place finish for his new JTG-Daugherty Racing team.

“It was just really good to just have a smooth race with really no issues,” Stenhouse said. “It was just huge to get a good run in and pass a lot of really good cars.”

Next up is Sunday’s stop at Bristol Motor Speedway – the fifth Cup race since NASCAR resumed May 17 and a decent track for Stenhouse. His six career top-10 finishes rank Bristol behind only Talladega (Alabama) Superspeedway at tracks where Stenhouse has delivered.

This is Stenhouse’s first season at JTG, but he surrounded himself with familiar faces from his Roush Fenway Racing tenure that include longtime crew chief Brian Pattie. The duo is making the transition from racing in a Ford to a Chevrolet and preparing for events that don’t include practice or qualifying.

As NASCAR tries to make up eight postponed points races the schedule has been condensed into one-day shows, and teams don’t have two or more practice sessions to dial in a setup. Stenhouse and Chris Buescher essentially swapped rides at the end of 2019, and Buescher’s old notes from Bristol are at their disposal.

“Our setups, looking at what we normally run versus what they ran here, are pretty similar, so I feel good about that,” Stenhouse said, adding that he’s quickly getting comfortable in the Camaro and NASCAR current aerodynamic package.

“The feel that I have in this race car is better than any of the feel that I had in my Cup cars over my career so far,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting to Bristol knowing that we’ve had good runs there. We’ve had chances to win there. It would be nice to be able to get up and go lead some laps, and contend for a win there as well.”

What to watch at Bristol:

DiBenedetto’s return

Matt DiBenedetto was told he was out at Leavine Family Racing days before last August’s race at Bristol. He worked through his disappointment to lead 93 laps and finish a career-best second.

It was a life-changing week for DiBenedetto, who impressed the NASCAR community with his resolve. Paul Menard took it one step further by telling his Wood Brothers Racing team he was retiring at the end of the year and they should hire DiBenedetto.

DiBenedetto got the ride that puts him under the Team Penske umbrella and has been decent this year. He finished second at Las Vegas in the second race of the season and led 10 laps Thursday night at Charlotte.

He’s ranked 11th in the standings.

“I’m excited about how good of a team we have and resources and teammates and you name it,” he said. “We’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close, we can be up front at any of these races. We’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that.”

Keselowski again on the pole

The field was set by a random draw, and Brad Keselowski again got the lucky pull for the pole. He will start first for the second time in five races.

It was a strong lottery for Team Penske, which got all three of its drivers in the first two rows. Joey Logano will start second and Ryan Blaney third.

Blaney cruises into Bristol riding back-to-back third-place finishes scored at Charlotte.

“These past two races I’ve been really proud of everyone’s effort,” Blaney said. “I think we were close, we’ve just got to find a little bit of speed here and there to go out and really dominate races.”

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