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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 hoping for more in Russia after finally banking first finish

during practice ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 18, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
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An accident in the Australian Grand Prix and brake issues in the Bahrain Grand Prix was not the kind of return to competition Esteban Gutierrez was expecting.

After a one-year hiatus and two failures to finish in 2016, the 24-year-old Mexican driver for Formula 1’s new American team was finally running at the end of a race.

As he heads into this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Gutierrez is keen to start getting any sort of momentum going.

“For sure it was a relief to finish the race finally,” Gutierrez said in Thursday’s FIA Press Conference.

“It’s been a frustrating start for me, a lot of interruptions over the weekends, but I wasn’t satisfied completely just by finishing the race of course, I want much more than that.”

Gutierrez finished the Chinese Grand Prix 14th, as the first driver one lap down to the leaders in the No. 21 Haas VF-16 Ferrari.

Notably, that is precisely where he finished his most recent five races of 2014—one lap off the pace, but running at the end of the show. Gutierrez’s last complete race came in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix when he finished 15th.

“China overall wasn’t a great track for our car,” he admitted. “Hopefully we can recover from now on, in Russia, and that this track gives us better possibilities.

“Russia offers… yeah, let’s say a medium range of overtaking so it’s not very straightforward but hopefully the strategy can be a bit more viable, that we can have more pitstops. As you say, the prediction is not the case, but hopefully we have a fun race for the people outside to watch, and have fun.”

Last year, Gutierrez spent his year working on race simulations to stay sharp. It was no substitute for race experience, but it provided a different perspective he hopes will lead to eventually finishing in a points’ paying position.

Working on a simulator in 2015 “didn’t change the approach; it changed my knowledge,” Gutierrez added. “I basically experiment a lot.”

“I feel very confident and I feel very prepared right now and everything is in front of me.”

Follow: @FantasyRace

Kvyat hopeful of continuing China form on home soil

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28:  Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Red Bull Racing waves at the crowd as he arrives on stage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat is confident that Red Bull can continue its strong start to the 2016 Formula 1 season this weekend in Russia as he prepares for his home grand prix.

Kvyat became just the second Russian F1 driver when he made his debut in 2014 with Toro Rosso, and the first to race on home soil after the addition of a grand prix in Sochi to the calendar the same year.

Kvyat finished third in China two weeks ago after enjoying a spirited battle with Sebastian Vettel, and arrives in Russia full of confidence thanks to the competitiveness of the Red Bull RB12 car.

“Lately we have been competitive on most of the tracks, any kind really, starting with Australia, Bahrain, China we always looked in quite good shape,” Kvyat said.

“I think Sochi also in the past for us maybe hasn’t been the easiest track, as a team, but now we are just coming to any track and we are just trying to extract everything the car has got.

“I believe also here we can fight for quite strong points. We will do our best and I think the car is looking in great shape.”

Kvyat came under fire from Vettel following an aggressive move at the start of the Chinese Grand Prix, but said that he has moved on from the incident.

“I think everything confirmed my point of view,” Kvyat said. “I think obviously everyone told their opinions on that incident, all the people involved. I think all in all I did what any competitive racing driver would do.

“But now I think there has been enough talk about it. Now it’s time to turn the page and move forward and now we are fully focused on the upcoming races.”

Hamilton: Red Bull F1 cockpit aero screen ‘like a riot shield’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing sits in his Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen in the garage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has made no secret of his opposition to Red Bull’s proposed ‘aero screen’ cockpit protection device, saying that it looks “like a bloody riot shield”.

Formula 1 has been working to improve cockpit safety following the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson in 2015 from head injuries sustained while racing.

The ‘Halo’ device designed by Mercedes made its first public appearance in Barcelona in February at pre-season testing, meeting a mixed response.

Red Bull’s screen is an alternative proposal that has gained significant traction in recent weeks, meaning that it also could be implemented for the 2017 season.

Hamilton spoke out against the Halo when it debuted in Barcelona, and was just as dismissive of the aero screen ahead of its first public run-out in Russian GP practice on Friday.

“If they are going to do this, close the cockpit like a fighter jet,” Hamilton told reporters in Sochi on Thursday.

“If you are going to do it close the cockpit like a fighter jet, don’t half-ass it.

“That screen looks so bad. It’s like a bloody riot shield.”

“You’ve got this cool, elegant, futuristic Formula 1 car and you’ve got a crappy riot shield sat on top of it, and the other one [Halo], the carbon fibre structure was obviously good but obviously Fernando [Alonso] wouldn’t have been able to get out of the car potentially in his crash in Melbourne.”

However, Hamilton said he was pleased to see the FIA pushing on with its drive to improve safety standards in F1, although he believes danger should remain an inherent part of the sport.

“It is a good thing to see that the FIA do take safety seriously,” Hamilton said.

“It is a constant thing that always needs to be worked on but as long as it doesn’t affect the aesthetics and the style and the coolness of Formula 1.

“Because the reason you look as a kid, you look at Formula 1 [and think] ‘wow, these guys, they are crazy, they could die at any moment.’

“Everyone who comes to me who has just started watching Formula 1 is like ‘ah it’s so dangerous’ and that’s a large part of why they are so in awe of what you do.

“You take away all that and that person could do it almost.”

Rosberg: F1 title rivals have had a ‘messy’ start

during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Nico Rosberg may enjoy a 36-point lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, but the German driver is under no illusions about the difficult start to the season his main rivals have suffered.

Rosberg claimed his sixth consecutive grand prix victory in China two weeks ago to extend his advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ standings.

Hamilton is yet to have a clean race and go wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg at the front of the pack, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel failed to start in Bahrain and suffered damage at the start in China.

Rosberg arrived in Sochi this week ahead of Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix full of confidence, but acknowledged that his rivals have been unlucky and expects them to respond soon.

“Definitely I’m pleased with the way I’ve been driving now in the first three races,” Rosberg said.

“For me, it’s not six in a row because the three last year were last year and they don’t count for anything in this year’s championship so for me it’s winning the first three which I’m really happy about.

“I’ve been driving really well, but my opposition had a really messy start. That’s the reality of it.

“I definitely expect them all to bounce back, especially Lewis and it’s going to be a great battle against them as always and it will be tough, even if I have some points lead now but it’s still such a long season: three races is a seventh or something of the whole thing.

“There’s like 450 points to take still and now I have 30-something in front or whatever. There’s still a massively long way to go so it’s not really changing the situation much.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live across NBCSN, CNBC and Live Extra this weekend. For more details, click here.