Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins first career Cup race at Talladega

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came into this weekend’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway without a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory. He left with some things he’s been searching for since 2011: a trophy, a playoff spot all but assured and a victory in the Cup series.

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Olive Branch, Miss. native had to survive an overtime finish and passed Kyle Busch with two laps remaining to put the No. 17 in P1. Once he was there, he didn’t look back—and #ParkedIt.


NOTHING LIKE YOUR FIRST TIME

It was getting to a point where we were saying “if” and not “when” regarding Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finding victory lane in the Cup Series. But the two-time XFINITY series champion is exactly that—a champion. Couple that with a resurgence of the Roush Fenway Racing organization thus far in 2017, and it was coming back to “when” and not “if.” Three straight top 10 finishes had him knocking on the door. And in his 158th career start, he knocked that door down.

“This is for all the guys at the shop—we’ve been terrible for a long time,” Stenhouse Jr. said after becoming the 11th driver to earn his first career victory at Talladega. “This year, every race, we’re just getting better and better. We knew Talladega was a good race track for us. It’s been a good one in the past. This Fifth Third Ford was so fast today. Qualifying on the pole, got the win. Can’t say enough about the guys. It’s cool to get Jack Roush back in Victory Lane. This is cool. The closest track to my hometown. Man, this is cool.”

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

LONG TIME COMING FOR ROUSH FENWAY

The Cat in the Hat, A.K.A. team owner Jack Roush, has had his fair share of success throughout his NASCAR career, which has spanned more than three decades. But the past two years have been among the toughest of his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career.

Roush Fenway Racing was once a five-car powerhouse that put all their cars in the playoffs. Then they downsized to four, then three, and now this season, two. The organization hadn’t visited victory lane in 101 races since Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway back in 2014—until Stenhouse Jr. wheeled the Fifth Third Bank Ford to the winner’s circle on Sunday.

“Have I been panicked? Of course not,” Roush said in victory lane, via ESPN.com. “I’ve been in NASCAR for 30 years and in racing nearly twice that long. I’ve been in holes before, and I’ve climbed out of all of them. But to say that this most recent challenge has been difficult would certainly be an understatement, just as saying that this win comes with some relief—that would be an understatement, as well.”

Photo: Getty Images

THE FIELD

Following the No. 17 across the start/finish line was Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola (failed post-race laser inspection) and Kasey Kahne in positions two through five. Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (won stage one), Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard and David Ragan rounded out the top ten when the checkered flag flew from the 2.66-mile tri-oval.

The No. 18 Skittles Camry of Kyle Busch led a race-high 48 laps on Sunday, but couldn’t hold off the hard-charging Stenhouse Jr. when it was go time as the field came to the white flag.

Some other notable finishers included Denny Hamlin in 11th (won stage two), Kyle Larson in 12th, Clint Bowyer in 14th, Daniel Suarez in 19th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 22nd. The No. 88 had a loose wheel with under 15 laps to go which put him in the back of the pack, but never was a real factor in terms of contending for the win on Sunday afternoon. Many more drivers were involved in “The Big One” on lap 169, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.


STENHOUSE JR.’S FATHER DID WHAT?

Ricky Stenhouse Sr. was in attendance to see his son triumph at Talladega, and he wanted to join in on the celebration that he was having with his No. 17 team in victory lane.

So, what did he do? Hop off his parked RV on the backstretch, try to climb the fence to run across the race track, fail, then run through a tunnel and subsequently get stopped by track security, where they questioned him as to why he was going what he was doing … seriously.

Talladega Superspeedway public relations chief Russell Branham explained the situation to everybody in the media center—Stenhouse Jr. included—which cleared some things up.

“He was extremely excited about his son winning today, and naturally so. He was actually perched on the back straightaway up top the Alabama Gang Superstretch in an RV.

His son wins the race, he goes down, he tries to find a way to get across the track. He tried to climb the fence, found out he couldn’t. He begins running down outside of the perimeter road of Turn 3 outside the venue. He wants to go through the tunnel and get in here.

Our (security) guys saw it. Naturally, they stopped him, asked him who he was, said, ‘Would you get in the car?’ They placed him in the car, talked to him, they said, ‘Who are you?’

He said, ‘I’m Ricky Stenhouse’s father.’ (They said) ‘Hold on one second, sir. Let me call the director of security.’ Called our security, and our security guy said, ‘Take him to victory lane,’ and that’s what happened.”

That’s INCREDIBLE. It might be one of the most “NASCAR” stories I’ve ever heard. But it’s also really cool, and shows the passion that this sport creates. Stenhouse Sr. joined his victorious son after everything got straightened out, and tears were shed.


THE BIG ONE

Things were going swell. Three-wide racing with no issues. But on lap 169, everything changed.

As the front of the pack was running single file, AJ Allmendinger clipped the rear bumper of Chase Elliott in the wrong place at the wrong time, which spun the No. 24. Chaos ensued.

In total, 16 drivers were involved in the wreck. Elliott went airborne, but was brought back down onto the track after sliding on top of the SAFER barrier for a portion of the backstretch. Allmendinger’s No. 47 never went airborne, but it flipped on its side and then landed on its roof, where it slid down the backstretch to a stop. Fortunately, all drivers involved were uninjured.

Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

“Just battling for the lead, (Kyle Busch) and (Elliott) were kind of leading the two packs,” Allmendinger told FOX after exiting the infield care center. “(Harvick) was just on me. Once I got to Chase, I got loose. I barely tapped him, and I tried to get off him, but it was too late.

Along in the wreck with Allmendinger and Elliott were Keselowski, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Gray Gaulding, David Ragan, Cole Whitt, Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr., Corey Lajoie and Michael McDowell.


‘DEGA SIZED CROWD

How about that crowd at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday? The facility seats 80,000, and it was pretty darn close to capacity when the green flag flew just past 2 p.m. ET.

Some of that is due to Dale Earnhardt Jr. announcing his retirement at the end of the season and fans wanting to come to his best track to see him one more time. Some of that is due to the racing that we’ve seen on track this season. But a lot of it is due to Talladega itself.

Photo: Getty Images

From nacho cheese eating contest, to swimming in queso, to a Charlie Daniels concert and seeing so many things that a human being can’t un-see, there’s no place like the Talladega infield. It brings in hundreds of thousands of fans to the track every weekend. It’s a glorified redneck convention—and they embrace it. Drivers visit with the fans and sometimes even partake in the activities. But most are content to sit on the stage and observe the shenanigans.

NASCAR went downhill in terms of ratings, attendance and attention in the mid-2000s for a multitude of reasons, but most blame it on the sport expanding from their core fan base in the south—like the folks that make their pilgrimage to Talladega twice a year. You can go to Hollywood, you can go to South Beach, you can go to Vegas. But there ain’t no place like ‘Dega.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to America’s heartland for a Saturday night showdown from Kansas Speedway, the first race under the lights of the 2017 season. The GoBowling 400 can be seen on FOX on May 13 with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET.