By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
As the dust in the Tennessee sky settled back to Earth, the top dirt racing talents of the NASCAR Cup Series rose to the top of the finishing order. One of whom was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet found itself inside the top five by the end of Sunday’s wild lone dirt event of 2023, as the likes of Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe were in his company.
“Yep, Bell, Reddick, [Kyle] Larson, me, Briscoe was behind us, [Justin] Haley — all racers who grew up racing on dirt,” Stenhouse Jr. “That’s cool for us dirt guys. Obviously, Logano won and Kyle Busch won the last one here. It’s good for us to run up there.”
This year’s Daytona 500 champ is an avid dirt racer in his own right. Among his dirt racing accolades, Stenhouse won the Knoxville Midget Nationals in 2007 and also won the 4-Crown Nationals that same year.
Fast-forwarding to this season, a fourth-place finish capped off a hectic night from 22nd on the starting grid.
“As the race went, we got a little closer to the front and was a little frustrated — just not being able to keep up with those top two or three guys,” he said. “So, my guys told me on the pit stop, ‘Look, you know, you’re better than you think you are. I know you’re a little frustrated. Just keep your head down. Nail these restarts and keep digging.
“So, I had all played out.”
Indeed, with Reddick and Bell teeing off for the final rounds, Stenhouse was waiting in the wings.
“The [Nos.] 20 and 45 were definitely trying to give [the fans] something,” he said. “I was trying to fight hard with [Austin Dillon] there because I felt like last year Kyle Busch won from third, right?
“So as tricky as it was running the cushion, I knew those guys were running really hard. So I was hoping to get into third so that if something happened, we would have a shot at sneaking by him.”
The track conditions assisted Stenhouse’s rise through the field, as the bumps formed in Turn 3 gave him the necessary bite to gain ground. Additionally, the early-weekend rain made for a unique texture of dirt for Sunday night.
“I felt like they did a really good job keeping the track holding together through all the rain that we had,” he said. “I like the holes down here that we had, it gives it really good character and when it does that, it keeps the track slick and won’t let it really take rubber because there’s so many marbles on the track.
“So that kept all three grooves really open down here. I was just telling somebody else that I feel like you either do the dirt race here, you do it at Eldora or you really don’t do it at all, I don’t think. But, I enjoy concrete Bristol. So, you know, me and Larson are team concrete for sure.
“I think that’s what I enjoyed about the first race — the characteristics of the holes and being able to use them.”
Stenhouse now has two top-five and three top-10 finishes through eight races this year. It’s the first time since 2020 the 35-year-old has reached multiple top fives in a season.
“It says a lot about the hard work that our guys have put in this offseason,” he said. “My guys are just doing a great job preparing the racecars. Winning the first race of the season definitely gets you some momentum and makes you more confident showing up to the race track.
“And, the cars have been fun to drive. I feel like I’ve been able to do more with the steering wheel than what I was able to do in the past. I felt like I was just kind of locked into the speed that we had and the way it handled last year. So, a testament to the guys just working really hard.”