Stenhouse ‘mentally prepared’ for playoff return after years away

It’s been so long since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was last a part of the NASCAR Cup Series postseason field that he couldn’t remember the obligations he had to fulfill.

“Did we even have playoff media day, then?” Stenhouse laughed this week ahead of the opener at Darlington Raceway. “I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.”

Stenhouse last made the playoffs in 2017, six years ago, when he drove for Jack Roush and won two races that season, but he is back in the hunt with JTG Daugherty Racing after winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

“It feels good,” Stenhouse said.

But the gap between Stenhouse’s two appearances makes this postseason “unfortunately” feel like a new experience all over again.


Stenhouse, however, is a driver who is always studying. While he wasn’t racing for a championship over the last few years, Stenhouse paid close attention to how each postseason progressed and competed with a championship mentality.

In the 2017 playoffs, Stenhouse experienced what it was like to advance through one round. Stenhouse made it through the Round of 16 but was eliminated in the Round of 12, so he does admit he might be inexperienced in the postseason when it comes to what it’s like to go round to round.

“But we’ve always, no matter the year, whether I’m in the playoffs or not, kind of reset to be like, ‘Hey, let’s prepare ourselves for if we make the playoffs and how we’re going to race it,’ and go about it with that mentality,” Stenhouse said. “So, I feel like I’ve been in the mentality of the playoffs, trying to put your best 10 races together to end the season every year since I’ve been in the Cup Series.

“So, from that aspect of it, I feel like I’m mentally prepared for it. And then, the only time we were in the playoffs, we advanced from the first round, which is a positive.

“No one thought we would advance out of that one, so I’ve got good memories from that and I feel capable of doing the same thing. The first round back then were good racetracks for us, and I still feel really good about the racetracks right now in this first round.”

Stenhouse’s team had the opportunity to prepare for the postseason all year, given they won the first race of the year. That preparation ramped up when the spot was officially clinched a few weeks ago, and every meeting has been focused on the playoffs and making sure nothing is missed.

In meetings as recently as this week going into Darlington (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, USA), there were things found that the team needed to work on. Stenhouse was encouraged by that.

Stenhouse doesn’t want to think too far ahead, though. The focus on the No. 47 team is solely on the first round and one race at a time.

“That’s good,” he said. “Everybody is looking after each other, looking over each others back to make sure that we don’t miss those small mistakes.”

Darlington, Kansas, and Bristol are the first three races of the first round, and that is all Stenhouse wants his team to be focused on. It’s one race and one round at a time, there is no need to think too far ahead.

“I’ve seen throughout the playoffs guys put themselves in bad spots or teams make mistakes and take themselves out of the playoffs,” Stenhouse said. “So, for me, I know if we go do our job and accomplish the goals we’ve set out for the first round, I think that will put us in. If it doesn’t that’s fine, but we have a game plan of what we need to do and how we need to execute.

“If that gets us to the next round, awesome. If it doesn’t that’s part of it. But I do know people have trouble in the playoffs, and as long as you aren’t that team, then you have a really good shot at advancing.”

With that in mind, the message from Stenhouse to his team as they begin the postseason from the 14th seed was simple.

“I told my team it’s kind of like pickleball,” he said. “You hit it on the other side of the net and let the other team mess up. You just want to keep yourself in the game. Don’t try and do anything spectacular. Take your shots when you get them but let the others make mistakes.

“That’s what we need to do to advance in this first round. If we make it past this first round, we might reevaluate how the second round needs to go. But that’s our mentality right now.”

Story originally appeared on Racer