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Reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looks for big gains in sophomore Sprint Cup season

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It was a rough ride for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his rookie season on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit last season.

Sure, he won Rookie of the Year honors, but the lack of wins, just one top-five finish and a 19th-place overall season finish were things the Olive Branch, Miss., native just wasn’t used to.

“Oh, it sucked,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk at last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C. “Last year was (one of the few) years I didn’t win a race in my career of racing from the time I was six. So, that was disappointing, but at least with Rookie of the Year, we kind of won something.”

Stenhouse looks for a significantly improved sophomore Cup season in 2014. The biggest change – and one that he feels will make a world of difference – is being reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley.

That’s not a slight against Stenhouse’s crew chief last season, Scott Graves. The duo got along fine, had good communication and worked well together, but it just wasn’t the same kind of relationship that Stenhouse and Kelley had.

And what a relationship it was: from the moment Kelley took over from Ben Leslie after the sixth race of the 2010 season, he and Stenhouse immediately grew into a formidable duo.

Sure, there were some growing pains in that first season, as Stenhouse finished 16th in the Nationwide standings, didn’t win a race, led just 40 laps and managed only three top-five finishes. It was also the season that team owner Jack Roush sat Stenhouse out of three races to drive home a point that either Stenhouse change his attitude and stop wrecking race cars unnecessarily, or else his NASCAR career would be short-lived.

Roush’s plan worked, and with Kelley’s help, Stenhouse began to make a dramatic turnaround that manifested itself in 2011 and 2012 with back-to-back NNS championships. Stenhouse won two races in 2011, along with 16 top five and 26 top 10 finishes and three poles. For an encore in 2012, he dominated the NNS with six wins, 19 top five and 26 top 10s, as well as four poles.

Almost all the credit for that turnaround, besides Roush of course, was Kelley atop the pit box. And now that the pair is reunited for 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, Stenhouse has hopes that what the duo did in the NNS can be replicated in the Sprint Cup circuit.

“Having Mike back on the pit box is going to be huge,” Stenhouse said. “That chemistry that we had in the Nationwide Series is tough to match. Him and I are having a lot of fun in the offseason, the guys are having fun and that’s what teams are all about.

“Just because you have the best mechanics on a team doesn’t mean you’re going to have the best team. You still have to have that chemistry and I think we have that this year, and that’s exactly what I felt what we were missing last year.”

Indeed, there was a lot missing last season as Stenhouse had no wins, just one top-five, three top 10s and one pole as a rookie Sprint Cup driver. In addition, he led only 35 laps, and had an average start of 18.3 and average finish of 18.9.

“It was disappointing, but I think towards the end of the season we got going in the right direction, we qualified better and started running more up front and getting a few more top 10s,” Stenhouse said. “So, I think we’re going to take that momentum, apply it to this year and really hit it strong.”

Kelley chose to serve as crew chief for Trevor Bayne last season rather than joining Stenhouse in the jump to Sprint Cup. Family reasons were part of it, but the lure of working together and trying to replicate in Sprint Cup what they did in the Nationwide Series was just too much of a lure for Kelley to pass up a second straight season.

“There’s no reintroduction time between myself and Mike,” Stenhouse said. “From the time that we started running together in Nationwide in 2010, I don’t think there’s been a day that we haven’t talked. Even last year, I talked to him every single day, we texted every day, and after every race we’d call each other. If him and Trevor had a bad race, he’d call me, and if I had a bad race, I’d call him. We just never lost that chemistry that we had, so it takes no time to get back into that.

“The fun we had in those three years in Nationwide kind of also brought him back. I think the excitement that we had, the level of fun that we had with our race team and him and I together, but also the results. He was here in the Sprint Cup garage as a car chief, learning from Jimmy Fennig and winning championships and races, and just like every other crew chief, mechanic, driver, spotters – everyone was working to get to that top level.  … I’m kind of glad he let me get my feet wet in the Sprint Cup Series first before him jumping over, and I think we can start off a little bit faster that way.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t just a rough season for Stenhouse in 2013, it also was difficult for his Sprint Cup teammates, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. While the latter two drivers both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, their performance in the 10-race playoff left a lot to be desired: Biffle finished ninth in the Chase, while Edwards was dead last in the expanded 13-driver field.

Much of the reason for that deficiency was the overall perception that Ford motors just didn’t have the kind of horsepower to keep up with their counterparts at Chevrolet and Toyota. That perception proved to be reality, as Ford-powered drivers combined for just a paltry six wins in last season’s 36 Sprint Cup races.

But Stenhouse perceives a whole different reality in 2014.

“I think the cars that Roush Fenway are building now are going to be a step above of what we had,” he said. “And I’m really just looking forward to getting on the racetrack and seeing everything that we’ve worked for in this offseason kind of merge together and pay off.”

No story about Stenhouse would be complete without at least a mention of his highly publicized relationship with fellow Sprint Cup racer Danica Patrick. When news broke about a year ago that the two were a romantic item, there was considerable notoriety and attention from the media.

But as the season went on, Patrick and Stenhouse the couple were all but forgotten, with the majority of interest being on Patrick and Stenhouse the race car drivers and their respective struggles in their first full seasons in the Sprint Cup series in 2013.

“We knew at the beginning of the season there was going to be a lot of questions, but I think (the media) did fairly well at giving us the respect and focusing in on the racetrack stuff,” Stenhouse said. “I was definitely thankful for that because it let us focus on our racing and worry about what we needed to do to be better on the racetrack.”

Patrick and Stenhouse are still going strong off the racetrack and the man that some fans have teasingly called “Mr. Danica Patrick” – something he takes good-naturedly – thinks both their relationship and their on-track performance will both grow even stronger in 2014.

“We’re both ready to get back on the racetrack and improve upon what we did last year,” Stenhouse said. “We both feel like we have a lot of room for improvement and are both looking forward to it.”

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Gutierrez delighted with P12 in Monaco qualifying, beating Grosjean

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Esteban Gutierrez thanked the Haas Formula 1 Team for its work after scoring his best qualifying result of the season so far in Monaco on Saturday.

Gutierrez finished 12th in Q2, beating teammate Romain Grosjean for the first time in qualifying this year and finishing less than two-tenths of a second off a Q3 berth.

Haas arrived in Monaco hopeful of resolving the issues that blighted its Spanish Grand Prix, and Gutierrez’s result suggested that progress had been made.

“I’m very happy with today. It’s been a positive day,” Gutierrez said.

“At the start it was difficult to get the tires right, and run by run I was trying to modify and adapt to the circumstances. Finally, we got everything together.

“With a 12th position start in Monte Carlo, a lot can happen in the front. I’m very proud of the team and the work we’ve been doing. Communication has been improving.

“We’ve been understanding the car step by step, and this will give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“Overall, it’s been a very good day for us.”

Grosjean may have only qualified 15th, but he too felt that the team had made significant progress since the race in Spain.

“We had the speed to go into Q3. We showed that in Q1,” Grosjean said.

“Just two times there was traffic on my out laps in Q2. We went out behind the Mercedes and they were going slow and that’s what got me.

“If the tires had been ready for the first timed lap, everything would have been fine, but they’re really had to warm up.

“Everyone’s doing different things, of course. Mercedes has more downforce than others, so they were going slower when I needed faster out laps. It was tricky.

“Traffic is part of the game, but twice we went in exactly the same group of cars, and that didn’t help us. I think we could have made it to Q3 and that would have been a great achievement.

“The positives are that the car feels better, but the negative is that we are P15.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner was satisfied with Haas’ first qualifying display in Monaco.

“I’m pretty happy with qualifying. Both drivers did a good job,” Steiner said.

“For Esteban to start 12th in Monte Carlo is great. The whole team reacted to the situations that came up in qualifying very well.

“Romain was on a fast lap when he lost time in the middle sector, so we still need to investigate what happened there, but overall we’re happy to start where we’re placed.

“If you line up between 10th and 16th, anything can happen, and providing we don’t get involved in any incidents, anything is possible.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN at 7am ET.

Raikkonen drops five places on Monaco grid after gearbox change

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kimi Raikkonen will drop five places on the grid for Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after being hit with a penalty for changing his gearbox.

Raikkonen qualified sixth for Ferrari on Saturday, but will now start from 11th on the grid after the team made the change on his car following final practice earlier in the day.

The change on Raikkonen’s car came short of the six consecutive races that it is required to last, prompting FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer to refer the case to the stewards, who duly handed Raikkonen a five-place grid penalty.

Ferrari struggled to match the pace of Red Bull and Mercedes in qualifying as Sebastian Vettel could only finish fourth.

Raikkonen did qualify sixth behind Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, but will now have to fight his way back up the order in Sunday’s race.

“The whole weekend has been quite tricky, but this morning the car felt a bit better and for qualifying we improved even more,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we did the right things, but we struggled to make the tires work as we wanted. They were too much on the edge of the grip, the rear was slipping or the front was sliding and in a track like this when you don’t have a consistent good grip you lose a lot of time because of that.

“Obviously we are not happy of where we end up and the penalty due to the gearbox change for sure doesn’t help, but we’ll try to make the best out of it.

“We cannot predict what will happen tomorrow, for sure the race it’s not going to be easy, but usually many things happen here, we’ll try to get the most, to do the right calls in case of safety car and to take the right decisions.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN at 7am ET.

Karam: “From Carb Day to ‘500 race day for the Gas Monkey Energy car”

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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, a past champion in both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series who finished ninth in his first Indianapolis 500 with DRR in 2014 at age 19, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month. Here’s his fourth entry, after Carb Day and with tomorrow’s Indianapolis 500 now set to launch. You can read his firstsecond and third blogs here.  He’ll run the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. 

Wow, it’s the weekend of the 100th Indianapolis 500. And I’m ready to go.

We had Carb Day on Friday with all 33 drivers on the track for the final one-hour practice before the big race. As it did on Monday, the No. 24 Gas Monkey Energy Chevy felt good on Carb Day. It handles great in traffic. In fact, we stopped early in practice as the car felt very good.

Now, it’s the countdown for the world’s biggest race. I’ve been waiting some nine months to get back in a race car. And last year, my race was short at Indy (went out first turn of the first lap), but I’m back and feel great about Sunday’s classic race.

For the last two years, we have run the same configuration of chassis for me. I have become accustomed to it now. Now I don’t have the experience of a Scott Dixon or a Tony Kanaan. I don’t know if it’s our car or setup, but it is good in race trim. It’s the best kind of feeling I’ve had in a car here.

I think many of the other guys should fall off in the race. I think a lot of cars up front will fall back, and some guys don’t look good in race trim. It’s hard to pass. I feel like there will be a big pack. Guys who can get through the middle of corner should be good in the race.

It’s funny how things change here over the course of the month. I think there was one day in practice last week we tested, and we weren’t bad. I was eighth. I liked how the car was, but we made a big geometry change and then I was lost. We were 16th or 20th. The car was awful, and I couldn’t pass a soul. I felt like I was in Indy Lights car and getting the doors blown off. “Man, this will be an awful month,” I thought.

I told our guys that we need to go back to the car we had on Monday. We did, and right from the get-go it was better. We worked with it a bit. I was passing on demand! I could drive behind all five Andretti cars. This is a great race car. Obviously we missed it in qualifying.

After that bad day, I was telling you about being down in the dumps. I said, “Well, this stinks. I’m gonna run mid-pack and try make something out of it.” Then Monday happened and it was like a light switch went on. I felt super good. When you’re passing people it’s incredible… I passed guys who have won this race before.

And we have a strong team too. We have 90 percent of the same crew as my first year with Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing in 2014. We have a good pit box, right at pit in. I can just focus on squaring it up every time. The guys are working so hard.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

I expected to go to the finals again Friday in the Pit Stop Challenge. We got a tough call when we were put in the right lane – the asphalt lane. There wasn’t any grip there and I spun the tires out of the pit stop. The crew was fast but tires spun. I feel badly for the crew because they did a great job. I thought we could win it. Penske and Ganassi always bring it. I wanted to take the top dogs down Friday.

I’m a big believer in keeping the morale up at the team. Earlier this week, I was just wiping down my mechanic’s bike. He has a bike he rode to the track. I said “Hey, it’s the little things. You work for me and I work for you.” They love that stuff. They’ll be laser sharp focused for Sunday. We can make up time in the pits. Hopefully, by halfway, I can be where I need to be.

I have a shot at this race. I’ve been nervous since Monday. If you actually have a chance to win this race, it’s an incredible feeling. The 100th Indy 500 in general makes you feel good.

So how about becoming the youngest Indy 500 winner in history, and doing so in the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?”

Now that’s a great story, and I hope to pull it off this Sunday.



Kvyat escapes penalty despite failing technical check after Monaco qualifying

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Daniil Kvyat of Russia driving the (26) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR11 Ferrari 060/5 turbo on track during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat has escaped exclusion from qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix despite his Toro Rosso car failing a technical check.

Kvyat qualified ninth in Monaco on Saturday, and was due to start the race from eighth on the grid after Kimi Raikkonen was given a grid penalty for a gearbox change.

However, Kvyat looked set to be excluded from qualifying when his car failed a front floor deflection test after the session.

“A front floor deflection test was carried on car number 26 [Kvyat],” FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer wrote.

“The vertical deflection under a vertical load of 4000 Newton exeeded 5mm.

“As this is not in compliance with Article 3.17.5 I am referring this matter to the stewards for their consideration.”

However, the stewards confirmed that Kvyat’s car had failed the test due to damage sustained during qualifying, prompting them to allow him to keep P8 on the grid.

“The team produced evidence that the car suffered an impact which reduced the downforce and resulted with a slower lap time than in Q2,” the stewards said.

“Therefore whilst technically the car failed to pass the deflection test, the stewards have decided not to impose any penalty. However the team is reminded that further tests will be conducted and that future failure of the test may not result in the same decision.

“The FIA technical team is requested to further study the telemetry produced by the team and provide a report to the Stewards if appropriate.”

Kvyat spoke of damage to his car that may have contributed to the floor failing the technical check after qualifying.

“I’m not happy with my qualifying today,” Kvyat said.

“I think I hit a curb hard in the third sector during my last run and I don’t know if this is maybe the reason why we lost a bit of time in Q3.

“The car certainly behaved differently compared to Q2, so we now have to analyze this, because we could’ve finished in a higher position than P9. It’s quite disappointing as we know we have a strong car with huge potential.

“Having said this, I’m confident for tomorrow, we have a good chance of scoring points and we will fight hard for them.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN at 7am.