Stenhouse, Jr. has been driving Roush-Fenway Racing equipment for more than eight years. He won two ARCA Racing Series races in 2008, rebounded from a turbulent couple of years in XFINITY to claim back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, and became Sprint Cup’s Rookie of the Year in 2013, having taken over the high-powered #17 Ford made famous by Matt Kenseth. On top of it all, coming into Saturday night’s race in Kentucky, Stenhouse had made a combined 236 Cup and XFINITY Series starts - and never once finished last.
2016 marks Stenhouse’s fourth full season in Sprint Cup. He still searches for his first Cup Series victory as Roush-Fenway searches to regain its lost consistency on the track. Coming into the current year, Stenhouse had finished no better than 33rd in the standings and earned no more than a single Top 5 per season. This year, Stenhouse and the Roush-Fenway team have shown some signs of improvement. Following finishes of 22nd, 10th, and 12th in the first three races, Stenhouse ranked a season-high 11th in the standings, then earned a pair of 5th-place runs at Fontana and just last week at Daytona. He came into Kentucky 21st in the standings with just one DNF - a crash at Phoenix in March.
Fifth Third Bank, which returned as Stenhouse’s sponsor for Kentucky, used the race to promote its partnership with Stand Up To Cancer, pledging a $20,000 donation to the foundation for stories of loved ones fighting the disease that fans shared on Twitter with #StandUpWithRicky. 53 names of such individuals were featured on the hood and rear decklid of Stenhouse’s car, as well as the name Willie Rhodarmer above the passenger side window.
Stenhouse timed in a strong 7th in Thursday’s opening practice, ranked 10th in the second session on Friday, then slipped to 20th in the third session and 26th in Happy Hour. Rain washed out qualifying, so the #17 lined up where it sat in points - 21st. For the first time in three races, no drivers were sent home.
Starting 40th on Saturday was Josh Wise, whose #30 The Motorsports Group Chevrolet trailed smoke in the opening practice. He was joined at the rear by Kurt Busch, who wrecked and spun his car in post-qualifying practice, sending the #41 Stewart-Haas Racing team to a backup car. Wise held the 40th spot on the first lap, then conceded it to Reed Sorenson and his unsponsored #55 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet. Sorenson was still holding the spot when the first caution fell on Lap 12.
A combination of a complete track reconfiguration from last year and NASCAR’s second use of its ultra-low downforce package from Michigan proved a handful for several drivers on Saturday. The first victim was Stenhouse. In the early laps, the #17 ran the high lane and scraped the wall off of Turn 4. Moments later, the right-front tire appeared to go down, sending the car hard into the outside wall. Stenhouse was uninjured and managed to limp his machine to the garage area despite heavy damage to the right-front corner of the car. By Lap 55, when Joey Logano suffered the same fate to draw the fourth caution of the day, Stenhouse was officially listed as out, securing his first-ever NASCAR last-place finish. Logano’s #22 Shell / Pennzoil / Autotrader Ford ended up 39th, taking the spot from Jimmie Johnson, who also crashed early only to return and finish 32nd. It was Logano's worst finish of the season, ending a streak of four straight top-five finishes.
The remainder of the Bottom Five was also filled by crashes. 38th-place Matt DiBenedetto, who parked in the XFINITY race the previous day, slammed the wall in nearly the same spot as Stenhouse and Logano, destroying the #83 BK Racing Toyota which for the first time carried logos from painting equipment manufacuturers Anest Iwata. 37th-place Chris Buescher, who last week scored his own first last-place finish, suffered another hard crash when he collided with Brian Scott’s #44 Medallion Bank Ford on the backstretch on Lap 93. Among the eight cars collected in the resulting melee was A.J. Allmendinger, whose damaged #47 Kroger / Clorox Chevrolet ended up 36th after crashing again on Lap 173.
*This marked the first last-place finish for the #17 in a Cup Series points race since March 1, 2009, when Matt Kenseth’s USG Sheetrock Ford lost an engine after 6 laps of the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas. Neither the number nor Roush-Fenway Racing had ever before trailed a Cup race at Kentucky.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #17-Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. / 9 laps / crash
39) #22-Joey Logano / 52 laps / crash
38) #83-Matt DiBenedetto / 79 laps / crash
37) #34-Chris Buescher / 92 laps / crash
36) #47-A.J. Allmendinger / 103 laps / crash
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Matt DiBenedetto, Reed Sorenson (3)
2nd) Josh Wise (2)
3rd) Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Larson, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Cole Whitt (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Premium Motorsports (4)
2nd) BK Racing (3)
3rd) Richard Childress Racing, The Motorsports Group (2)
4th) Chip Ganassi Racing, Front Row Motorsports, Hendrick Motorsports, HScott Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, Roush-Fenway Racing (1)
2016 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (11)
2nd) Toyota (4)
3rd) Ford (3)