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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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James Key notes similarities between Toro Rosso, Mercedes 2017 F1 cars

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 26: Scuderia Toro Rosso Team Principal Franz Tost, Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso, Carlos Sainz of Spain and Scuderia Toro Rosso and James Key, Technical Director of Scuderia Toro Rosso unveil the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the pitlane during previews to F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 26, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical chief James Key has noted the similarities in the design between his team’s new Formula 1 car and Mercedes’ W08 EQ Power+.

Toro Rosso unveiled its new STR12 car on Sunday in Barcelona prior to the start of pre-season testing on Monday, with the team’s striking new livery being the biggest talking point.

After returning to current-year power units courtesy of Renault, hopes are high at Faenza that Toro Rosso could be the surprise package of F1 in 2017, particularly given the change in the regulations.

Speaking to reporters following the STR12’s launch, Key was quick to note that Toro Rosso appeared to have coincidentally gone down a similar path to Mercedes when it came to interpreting the new regulations.

“I looked at the Mercedes and thought: ‘Ah, OK. They’ve got our front suspension’. Most people will say we’ve got Mercedes’ front suspension,” Key said, as quoted by Reuters.

“The nose is similar, the front of the side pods is similar, even the bodywork of the sidepods is similar. Let’s just hope the engines are similar!”

Despite being on the same wavelength as the three-time reigning constructors’ championship-winning team, Key admitted he felt a twinge of disappointment.

“On the one hand we were pleased to see someone else has done a similar thing; on the other hand we were disappointed that we weren’t the only team to think of something,” Key said.

“There are many different concepts out there, actually.”

Toro Rosso finished seventh in last year’s constructors’ championship, having spent the latter part of the season largely hamstrung by the 2015-spec Ferrari engine it was using.

Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat return for another year with Toro Rosso in 2017, with the first public running of the STR12 coming in the next few days at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Formula 1 gets colorful: Here are all 10 liveries for 2017

© Getty Images
© Getty Images
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Following Scuderia Toro Rosso’s launch of the new STR12 car on Sunday night, the Formula 1 grid is now set ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona on Monday.

All 10 teams have sported cars that are quite the deviation from their predecessors, as forced by the overhaul of the technical regulations for the new season.

While the changes are mainly in place to make the cars quicker on-track, they also look more visually appealing than the 2016 grid – even if the debate over the ‘shark fin’ is set to rage on.

F1 has also got more colorful, with a number of teams sporting big livery changes that will make cars easier to pick out when you tune in across NBC Sports this season.

Here is what the grid will look like for F1 in 2017.

Mercedes W08 EQ Power+

2017 Silver Arrows Collateral Day Photography - Steve Etherington
© Mercedes AMG Petronas

Red Bull RB13

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© Red Bull Racing

Ferrari SF70H

© Scuderia Ferrari
© Scuderia Ferrari

Force India VJM10

© Sahara Force India
© Sahara Force India

Williams FW40

© Wil
© Williams Martini Racing

McLaren-Honda MCL32

 (Photo by McLaren F1 via Getty Images)
© McLaren F1 via Getty Images

Toro Rosso STR12

© Scuderia T
© Scuderia Toro Rosso

Haas VF-17

© Haas F1 Team
© Haas F1 Team

Renault R.S.17

© Getty Images
© Getty Images

Sauber C36

© Sauber
© Sauber

Toro Rosso reveals STR12 F1 car with striking new livery

© Scuderia T
© Scuderia Toro Rosso
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Scuderia Toro Rosso has completed a busy launch week for Formula 1 by unveiling its new STR12 car that will race in 2017.

As rumored, Toro Rosso presented a car with a drastically different livery to the one that has been present for much of its time in F1, varying from the dark blue and red colors the Red Bull sister team has been known for.

Now a metallic blue becomes the primary color for the car, with silver and red highlights being used for the Red Bull branding.

Drivers Carlos Sainz Jr. and Daniil Kvyat were on-hand to unveil the STR12, which sported a radical new look to fall in line with the new technical regulations in F1 for 2017.

Most noticeable on the car is the addition of a ‘shark fin’ to the engine cover, something that the majority of teams have ran with for their launches so far.

The team also released a launch video showing the STR12 enjoying its first on-track test.

Toro Rosso ended last year seventh in the constructors’ championship, but suffered a dip in form towards the end of the season after sticking with 2016-spec Ferrari power units.

For 2017, the team will once again link up with Renault and use current-year engines, giving it the chance to compete throughout the campaign.

Sainz was one of F1’s unsung heroes through 2017, leading Toro Rosso’s charge following Max Verstappen’s promotion into a Red Bull seat four races into the year.

After spending the middle part of the season regaining his confidence after moving in the opposite direction to Verstappen, Kvyat looked much stronger in the final flyaways, doing enough to secure a seat with Toro Rosso f0r 2017 in the process.

The STR12 has already completed a filming run at Misano in Italy, but will hit the track publicly for the first time on Monday with the start of pre-season testing in Barcelona.

Marc Marquez dislocates shoulder during private Honda MotoGP test

PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 15:  Marc Marquez of Spain and the Repsol Honda Team rides during 2017 MotoGP pre-season testing at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on February 15, 2017 in Phillip Island, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
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Reigning MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez suffered a dislocated shoulder during a private test earlier this week, the Repsol Honda team has confirmed.

Marquez, 24, was testing with Honda at the Jerez circuit in Spain when he suffered a crash on the second day of running.

The Spaniard sustained a dislocated shoulder, but Honda confirmed that it does not expect him to miss the next private test in Qatar prior to the start of the season.

“Medical checks show neither further damage nor any other injuries, and the rider from Cervera should be fit to finish preseason testing ahead of the first race of the season,” a statement reads.

“Today was a productive day, as we were able to do many laps and to work on our bike well. We did most of the work we had planned, which is good,” Marquez said of his test day.

“I crashed in the afternoon and dislocated my shoulder, but luckily it was nothing serious. Now I’ll have some rest back at home and get ready for the next test, in Qatar.”

The new MotoGP season gets underway on March 26 with the Qatar Grand Prix.