About a year ago, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was doing the same thing he’s doing now: Enjoying a season’s-best finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
That’s where Stenhouse hopes the comparison to last season will end.
After his second-place finish last spring at Bristol, Stenhouse’s sophomore season in the Sprint Cup Series was filled with more downs than ups. The Roush Fenway Racing driver ended up 27th in the series standings, eight places worse than his rookie season.
Until his fourth-place finish Sunday night at Bristol, 2015 hadn’t gone much better. Stenhouse has had four finishes of 29th or worse.
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The tide, however, may be turning.
“It’s tough because we always feel like we can run well (at Bristol). It’s not 100 percent what every track is like and that’s the problem,” Stenhouse said. “We go to Richmond next week and the track is old and it gets slick and wears out and we need the car to turn a little bit better.
“We use the banking (at Bristol) to get the car to turn, so hopefully we can keep maintaining and getting our cars a little bit better each week.”
Roush Fenway debuted a new car at Texas earlier this month, which showed some mild gains.
While at one point falling three laps down in that race, Stenhouse rallied to finish 15th – his best finish on an intermediate track since the fall of 2013 at Charlotte. His average finish on intermediate tracks this season prior to the Texas race was 32.5.
“We still lack a little bit to go up and lead laps, but at Bristol I don’t think we’re far off,” Stenhouse said. “We still have to work on our front-ends some more and get our Fords turning a little bit better, but (Sunday) was a lot of fun.”
The fourth-place finish is the organization’s best this season, and while Stenhouse enjoyed a strong night, his teammates Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle finished 28th and 30th, respectively.
Hence, there’s still work to do.
No Roush Fenway driver has won since Carl Edwards’ victory last June on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., and Edwards is now at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Edwards also held Roush Fenway’s most recent top-five finish before Stenhouse’s performance on Sunday.
Next up is another short track and Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, a track where Stenhouse has struggled in the past.
But Sunday’s finish is reason for optimism.
“Richmond was a struggle for us last year, so hopefully we have made some gains at that,” he said. “Richmond will be a test for us as bad as we were there last year, but Talladega and Kansas are good race tracks for us.
“I’m looking forward to getting to Kansas. We’ve led laps there and led laps late and cautions caught us off, so those are the next two that I’m really looking forward to getting to.”
Utter: 704- 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter