Stenhouse goes for four in possible speedway finale
|Ricky Stenhouse Jr. does a celebratory burnout after winning the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 on May 18 at Iowa Speedway. It was Stenhouse Jr.’s third straight NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in Iowa. (Shane Lucas/Daily News File Photo)|
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has built up something of a folk legend at Iowa Speedway in the past year, but that legend could very well be in its final chapter on Saturday.
Unless he’s able to run a partial Nationwide Series schedule or Iowa Speedway acquires a Sprint Cup race, the U.S. Cellular 250 may be Stenhouse’s final appearance at Iowa Speedway for some time, but it could also further build on his legacy with the possibility of a fourth-straight win at the track.
“That’s probably a tough question right now,” Stenhouse said of his future in Newton. “Obviously we’re running the Sprint Cup full time, but I’d like to have a 15-20 race schedule, if at all possible, in the Nationwide Series. We’re still working on that, but I always enjoy coming back to Iowa, so hopefully we can get back here.”
Stenhouse enters this weekend in a much different position than he did for the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250 in May. After dominating the early stretch of the season, he suffered a rash of double-digit finishes that were attributed to some bad luck and one admitted driver error. He has since recovered, however, and is just 13 points behind series leader Elliott Sadler and one behind up-and-coming rookie Austin Dillon.
“Generally speaking, we’re doing the things we need to do,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve had some great runs here as of a late and we’ve gained back the points from how far we fell back when we had that bad month. Coming into Iowa, we’re just planning on doing the same thing we’ve done the past couple weeks. Obviously we’re going for four in a row, but you can’t let that get to your head.”
Although he obviously has the hot hand with three-straight victories, Stenhouse isn’t the only confident driver heading into Iowa Speedway. Based on the tight battle for second place that ensued after Stenhouse’s domination of the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250, a handful of drivers will either be looking to cement their place in the standings or earn that first elusive victory.
“I think this weekend has a strong chance to do that, especially coming off a strong finish here in the spring,” said Sprint Cup driver Michael McDowell, who finished third in the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250. “It’s definitely a good opportunity to get the Pizza Ranch car to victory lane since we know what we need here and we’ve been good in the past year. I feel like we’re getting close.”
Nationwide Series regular Justin Allgaier is among the drivers that were in the hunt for second in May before he finished in sixth. Much like Stenhouse, Allgaier has had some highs and lows this season, but feels Iowa Speedway could be the place to get it all corrected.
“We always seem to run well there, but that top-five has always eluded us,” Allgaier said. “Our season has been very up-and-down, but in the past couple weeks we’ve turned things around and had some good races. We’ve just got to keep that streak going and if we do, we’ll be in good shape.”
A number of factors will be at play in the U.S. Cellular 250 to set it apart from the Pioneer Hi-Bred 250, including the fact that the drivers will once again be under the lights at Iowa Speedway. Because of a new front right tire and the track adjusting from intense daytime heat, things could get interesting much like they did at the conclusion of last year’s race.
“Night races are always a little bit different, so I think it’ll be a little similar to last year,” McDowell said. “But it’s good shorttrack racing and it’s going to be very much the same as we’ve seen in years past.”
Speedway fans will also bear witness to the Nationwide Series’ Dash4Cash promotion, which creates a race within a race and will award either Stenhouse, Dillon, Michael Annett or Sam Hornish Jr. with a cash prize for a top finish amongst the four. Dillon and Annett have already taken home bonus checks from the Dash4Cash, but Stenhouse has yet to accomplish the feat despite coming close in past weeks.
“We’ve been so close. We’ve missed every single one by one position, like it’s right there in front of us,” Stenhouse said. “But there’s no pressure. Obviously if we win the race, we’ll win the Dash4Cash, but the prize we’re looking at is the end of the year points championship. That’s the one that pays big, and I want to represent the series again as a champion.”
However, the main motivator for this weekend is momentum. With the series headed for two road courses in a row, drivers are eyeing Iowa Speedway as the last chance for some oval points before the points race could become muddled in the uncertainty of road courses.
“We need to look at all the remaining races as big ones simply because we are behind and we have a lot of ground to catch up on,” Allgaier said. “The road courses are good because they’re kind of a crapshoot. You don’t know how or where you’re going to finish, so I think you have to get the points at the racetracks you know you can get, and otherwise just put your best foot forward.”
Even with his win streak on the line and the Dash4Cash bonus dangling in front of his face, Stenhouse’s primary motivation is ending his Nationwide Series career on a high note. His call-up to the Sprint Cup came a bit sooner than he had planned because of the sudden departure of Matt Kenseth from Roush-Fenway Racing, so his long-term goals and plans in the Nationwide Series were kick-started into the final weeks of this season.
“It’s kind of the start of the run to the end,” Stenhouse said. “In the last third of the races, we’ve got to run strong. If we can get four in a row and kick off the rest of the season, I think that would be huge for us. I love Iowa Speedway, especially the fans and the operators of the track, so if we could get that fourth win it would be huge.”
All eyes, once again, will undoubtedly be on Stenhouse when the green flag drops at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Although he could be the emotional favorite for the fans that have grown attached to him, Stenhouse will receive no admiration or letting up from his fellow drivers.
“They’ve had a good car here in and they’ve run well, but that only lasts so long in motorsports,” McDowell said of Stenhouse. “He’ll be strong, but I don’t see him breaking away or dominating the race.”
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