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

Leave a comment

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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Massa brushes off Vettel’s blocking complaint at end of Russian GP

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Felipe Massa brushed off Sebastian Vettel’s blocking complaint at the end of Sunday’s Formula 1 race in Russia, saying the Ferrari driver stood no chance of catching race winner Valtteri Bottas at the front of the pack.

Vettel closed up on Bottas in the final few laps of the race, getting a boost from DRS on the penultimate tour of the Sochi Autodrom as he ran less than a second behind.

Massa – Bottas’ former teammate at Williams – inadvertently gave the Finn a boost by also offering him DRS despite being a lap down, letting the Finn past into Turn 2.

Vettel was next up to try and lap Massa, expecting the Brazilian to lift through Turn 3, only for him to keep his foot in and make it difficult to overtake.

Vettel immediately complained over the radio to his Ferrari team, but it was to no avail as Bottas crossed the line 0.6 seconds clear to record his first grand prix victory. Massa finished the race ninth for Williams.

When asked about Vettel’s complaint after the race, Massa dismissed it, believing the German would not have caught Bottas anyway.

“To be honest, so many races he was not happy,” Massa told NBCSN.

“I left the right side for him. I slowed before corner four and he didn’t want to go.

“He wasn’t going to pass Valtteri in the last lap anyway, for sure.”

Massa was quick to congratulate Bottas after the race, the pair having spent three years together as teammates at Williams ahead of the latter’s move up to Mercedes for 2017.

“To be honest he deserves the win. He was a driver that showed he is at this level in the right way,” Massa said.

“People didn’t see the level he was [at Williams], but I said straight away he’d do a good job for Mercedes. He is.

“This is his track, and I’m so happy for him. He’ll get more than just the one he did today.”

Bottas joins F1’s Finnish stars with Russian GP win

Getty Images
Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One has a new Finnish iceman on top of the podium.

Valtteri Bottas kept his cool under pressure in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix to claim his first F1 victory, swooping past Sebastian Vettel for the lead on the first lap, and keeping the hard-charging German behind him on the final lap.

“When I drive, there’s not much emotion in there,” Bottas said after his win. “I’m just trying to get everything right and get every lap, every corner perfect.”

Bottas joins an illustrious list of Finnish winners, including Kimi Raikkonen who joined Bottas on the podium after finishing third. Raikkonen has long been nicknamed “The Iceman” for his cool demeanor, but Bottas showed he can be just as chilled. Long considered a potential winner, he’d made the podium 11 times before with Williams and Mercedes, but the top step was always just out of reach.

Bottas doesn’t go in for wild celebration, but he radiated calm satisfaction with a job well done.

“Hearing the Finnish national anthem is something quite special for me,” he said. “I always trust in my ability but it’s nice to get a confirmation.”

Just like Raikkonen, Bottas can occasionally get irritated by well-meaning advice from his team over the radio, and that happened Sunday.

“I had to ask for a bit more radio silence from the guys on the pit wall,” he said, “just for me to get on it and focus for it, and to feel a bit more like home. Nice and quiet, and that helped.”

A country of 5.5 million people, Finland has long punched far above its weight in international motorsport.

Just eight Finns have ever started a Formula One race. Of those, seven have made the podium at least once, five have won a race and three – Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Raikkonen – became world champions.

Last year’s champion, Nico Rosberg, raced as a German but is the son of 1982 champion Keke.

It was his decision to retire in the winter that opened the door for Bottas to move to Mercedes from Williams. In his fifth Formula One season, Bottas now has a car capable of fighting for regular wins and hopes Sunday will prove “the first of many.”

Sitting third in the standings after four races, could a world championship be within Bottas’ grasp?

As he said on the podium, “for me that’s the only goal in my career.”

Red Bull GRC: Speed leads VW, Andretti 1-2 in Memphis opener

Photo: Louis Yio/Red Bull Content Pool
Leave a comment

The new Red Bull Global Rallycross season is underway but it’s the same driver who has ended the last two years on top, Scott Speed, who kicks off 2017 in victory lane.

The two-time defending series champion, driving the No. 41 Oberto Volkswagen Beetle GRC for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, led home his teammate Tanner Foust in GRC’s trip to Memphis to kick off the new season. The win is also Speed’s 12th in the series, most in Global Rallycross history. Speed and Foust also won their respective semifinals.

“(Being the winningest GRC driver in history) is a great stat, but those wins are all part of having a great team – starting with Tanner Foust, I have an incredible teammate. The whole Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team just worked this offseason. We put in the work, and when we wanted to stop we worked some more. When you show up to the first race and you put this kind of performance down, it just makes all that work worthwhile. Big shout out to Circle K and Oberto for coming on this year, and obviously Rockstar – thanks so much, guys,” Speed said.

Foust was second in the No. 34 Rockstar Energy Beetle, starting his 2017 season one spot worse than he did last year. He swept the Phoenix doubleheader a year ago.

Steve Arpin, in his first race under the rebranded and phased Loenbro Motorsports effort, took the privateer No. 00 Jacob Companies Ford Fiesta ST onto the podium in third place. Arpin was the most consistent threat to the Volkswagen pair last year and has done well to carry that momentum into the start of 2017.

Rookies Mitchell DeJong and Oliver Eriksson finished fourth and fifth in superb efforts for Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, taking their Nos. 24 and 16 Honda Civic Coupes to top-five finishes in their first weekend as teammates at the Supercars level for the Andreas Eriksson-led team.

Behind them, last year’s GRC Lites champion Cabot Bigham eighth in his first Supercars start for Bryan Herta Rallysport while Sebastian Eriksson limped to seventh in the third Honda with damage in the final. Chris Atkinson retired from the race with three laps to go in the first of two Subaru Rally Team USA WRX-STis, on what was a tough day for that team.

The final only saw eight cars take the start. Mechanical issues knocked Austin Dyne out of the weekend early in his first start with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, while damage on the initial start cost Patrik Sandell any hope of a result in his first final with Subaru.

In the 10-lap final around the 1.18-mile circuit which primarily utilized the Memphis International Raceway oval with a shorter dirt section, Speed and Foust both got the jump on a start, and were never headed the rest of the way.

The battle was for third between Arpin and DeJong, with Arpin taking the Joker on Lap 5 of 10 to move past the 2014 GRC Lites champion in his second Supercars weekend – DeJong debuted at Los Angeles last year.

GRC stays down south for its next race, Round 2 at Louisville, to be held on Sunday, May 21.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso