TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 22: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Cheez-It Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2023 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images
TALLADEGA, ALABAMA - APRIL 22: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Cheez-It Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 22, 2023 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. quietly putting together his best career season

By Dustin Albino

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started off the 2023 NASCAR season in grand fashion by winning the Daytona 500. More than three months later, he’s still on pace to put his best season together.

The two-time Xfinity Series champion, who is in his 11th full-time season at the Cup Series level, already has a pair of top-five finishes, which matches his total from the previous two seasons combined. The No. 47 Chevrolet has four top-10 efforts, one shy of equaling Stenhouse’s best total with JTG Daugherty Racing, coming in 2022.

Entering this weekend, the No. 47 team has a streak of six consecutive top 15s, dating back to Stenhouse’s fourth-place run at the Bristol dirt race. The streak ties his best string of finishes together with JTG, and is just one top 15 shy of his best streak ever.

Sitting 14th in the championship standings, Stenhouse is a mere 36 points below the top 10. He’s on pace to shatter his best average finishing position for a full season, currently at 14.0. In his prior 10 seasons, his best average finish is 17.1, back in 2017 when he won a pair of races for then-Roush Fenway Racing.

It’s safe to say, it’s good to be Stenhouse this season.

DOVER, DELAWARE - APRIL 29: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Icy Hot Pro Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Würth 400 at Dover International Speedway on April 29, 2023 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) | Getty Images
(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) | Getty Images

“I feel really good and feel like my guys are working really hard,” Stenhouse said last weekend at North Wilkesboro Speedway. “They are showing up to the racetrack well prepared. As soon as I go out in practice, I know my car is going to be pretty close. That’s been beneficial for us. We’ve been able to make long runs during practice and showcase what we have.

“Bringing a lot of confidence to the racetrack. I’ve got some good racetracks coming up, which I’m looking forward to”

Compared to last season, the No. 47 team has improved at tracks it had struggled at. Earlier this season, Stenhouse believed he was getting better finishes than what the car was capable of running. Now, he feels the opposite, despite being on a heater.

“I think once we get our execution down, a little bit of luck on our side — which we’ve had lately — but our execution has been down,” Stenhouse said. “We can put those top 15s and be a little more consistent in the top 10s.”

One of the key contributors to the No. 47 team’s success in 2023 has been the addition of Mike Kelley as crew chief. Stenhouse won consecutive Xfinity championships with Kelley calling the shots over a decade ago. He also led the way for Stenhouse in his second Cup season in 2014.

With Brian Pattie departing JTG for a crew chief role at Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series, Stenhouse knew who he wanted to be his crew chief. Historically, he’s had the most success with Kelley, who hadn’t been a crew chief in NASCAR since 2019 with Front Row Motorsports.

“The leadership Mike Kelley has, I think is what helps separate [our team],” Stenhouse said. “I think he has more confidence in every single guy on our team, including me, than we have in ourselves. In our team meetings, he’s telling our guys, ‘If we give Ricky a car capable of doing what he needs to do with it, he will go do it.’

“He gets those guys believing in me, gets me believing in them. It’s been a huge blessing.”

The Cup Series competes at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend for NASCAR’s longest race of the year in the Coca-Cola 600. In the last five points races at CMS, Stenhouse has three top-10 finishes.