TALLADEGA, Ala. — In the 12 years I went to races as just a fan, I can’t say I attended one that resulted in a first-time winner. But in just my second year on the NASCAR beat, that changed.
As the laps of this past May’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway wound down, I took position near the exit of pit road to shoot some photos of the finish (which I do at every race). I made it out there for the final 10 laps, which ran under caution.
While under yellow for a three-car incident on the backstretch, I looked down at my FanVision to see the running order. Kyle Busch was the race leader, which wasn’t surprising as he’d been near the front all day. What was surprising, however, was the driver in second.
That driver was the race’s pole sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Now when I say I was “surprised,” that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention to his race. He was near the front towards the start, only dropping off the radar in the middle and resurfacing in closing time. That’s not just me, but also from NASCAR’s post-race loop data.
What I meant by “surprised” was seeing him in second with overtime looming and either saying internally or externally, “Oh my God. Is this the day Stenhouse finally breaks through and wins a Cup race?!”
The green flag dropped, and the race to the checkered flag was on.
Coming to the white flag, he was to Busch’s inside.
I turned back up to the big ISM Vision board to see the subsequent push Stenhouse received from Jimmie Johnson going into Turn 1, which made all the difference.
Now I’m as objective a beat writer as can be and had no vested interest in seeing the driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford win, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little joy seeing him finally win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. While I’m a NASCAR writer first, the NASCAR fan that’s still in me was thinking, “By God, he did it! He actually broke through and did it!”
Even funnier is that Stenhouse will tell you he thought his first win would’ve come anywhere other than Talladega.
“Throughout my whole XFINITY career I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know about the speedways.’ They weren’t my favorite,” he said. “We ran decent on them. We ran good, but I never really felt like I knew how to put myself in position for our team to win, so the mile-and-a-half and short tracks I always felt like were our two good tracks in the XFINITY Series and then on the Cup side, especially here at Talladega it’s always been a track where we’ve been pretty consistent and, like I said, missing wrecks and getting good finishes, but I guess I didn’t see my first win coming at a speedway.”