Performance-wise, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s inaugural Sprint Cup season was a far cry from the back-to-back championship years in the Nationwide Series that preceded it. But it was still enough to earn him the 2013 Rookie of the Year title in NASCAR’s top division.
“All in all, it was a huge learning experience,” Stenhouse said in summing up his season. “[I’m] thankful we made it through, it’s behind us now. We can move on to next year, look on improving every spot at every track that we can in the final points standings.”
The Mississippi native didn’t log his first Top-10 result of the year until finishing 10th in the regular season finale at Richmond in September. However, he managed to get through without suffering a DNF, netting an average finish of 18.9 en route to a 19th-place showing in the standings.
By contrast, Stenhouse’s Rookie of the Year rival and girlfriend, Danica Patrick, had what one would charitably call a “character-building” debut year in Cup.
After finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, the former IndyCar star was unable to turn in another Top-10 finish for the remainder of the schedule. Poor qualifying (average start: 30.1) didn’t help matters and on race day, it wasn’t much better for Patrick, who had an average finish of 26.1. Additionally, she had five DNFs.
For his part, Stenhouse said that he and Patrick didn’t particularly focus on their rookie battle outside of a light bit of joking over the situation. He also maintained that both of them learned a lot as Cup freshmen.
“We both wanted to just finish as best we could each and every week,” he said. “Then ultimately, in the final points standings of the whole field, I was shooting for a Top-15 [finish] – didn’t quite get that.
“But all in all, I think we both had decent years…We both have a lot to work on throughout the off-season and through next year.”
In that regard, Stenhouse said he needed to improve on learning the right adjustments to make during practice in preparation for the races.
“We still struggled with that a little bit,” he said. “But then again, I know that’s what we need to work on. We got our qualifying efforts better. We start the race a lot better; we just have to finish it off.
“Next year, that’s the biggest thing, just finishing the races kind of where we start them.”
Stenhouse’s best result this year was a third-place effort at Talladega last month.
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.