TALLADEGA, AL/May 7, 2017 (AP)(STL.News) — It’s been a long journey for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to make his way to victory lane.
When he finally got there, in his 158th career NASCAR Cup start, his team owner and famous girlfriend were waiting.
His father? Well, he was a little late to the party.
A last-lap pass of Kyle Busch in overtime Sunday got Stenhouse the win at Talladega, which was the first for resurgent Roush Fenway Racing since 2014. Danica Patrick, who had wrecked out of the race, was in street clothes and able to lean into the car to give her boyfriend a congratulatory kiss.
“Pulling into victory lane and seeing Jack and Danica standing there together, they’re the same height, it was super special,” he said. “She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked, and to have her there was really awesome.”
Ricky Stenhouse Sr. needed a police escort.
The elder Stenhouse tried to climb a fence along the Talladega backstretch and cross the track to find his way to the celebration. When that didn’t work, he began running along a perimeter road. Security picked him up, placed him in a car and questioned him. Finally vetted, he was driven to victory lane to meet his son.
“My dad has done so much for me in my career,” Stenhouse said. “Everything that I’ve learned is from him, and you know, making sure that you have the right people around you is one of the things that he’s all about, making sure that you have people that respect you, that will do anything for you, and man, he sacrificed a lot for me and my career.
“Everything that I know about racing I learned from him, and I’m glad that he was able to be here in Victory Lane.
It shouldn’t have gone any other way for Stenhouse, a winner at nearly every level who has struggled mightily in Cup because of Roush’s rebuilding phase.
A two-time champion in the Xfinity Series, Stenhouse has not transferred that success to the next level. Prior to this year, he had just seven top-five finishes and led just 44 career laps.
Now he’s in the All-Star race later this month, and has earned a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs.
“We’ve been terrible for a long time, but we’ve been getting better and better every race,” said Stenhouse, who took time to note he “parked it” in victory lane for his late friend, Bryan Clauson.
“I think you go through that so long that you almost lose a little — all your confidence. There’s still things to clean up, and there’s still things to get a lot better at, but man, it feels awesome to have everybody at Roush Fenway stand behind us.”
Patrick had been packing in the couples’ motorhome, watching the race on television. She soon found herself sitting on the floor, cheering wildly over the final laps. When she reached his car, she leaned in for an admitted “big ‘ol kiss.”
“While I never want to crash out of a race ever, at least I was there for the moment when he pulled in and that’s the bright side. And I got to watch him win,” she said. “I’m just so, so proud of him. He works his butt off. He works harder than any driver I know. He works tirelessly.”
Stenhouse started from the pole and praised the power from his Doug Yates-built Ford engine for the speed. Then he used that speed to snatch the race away with a last-lap pass of Busch.
The first two stages of the race were calm, and it was the final stretch to the checkered flag that got heated.
The race was stopped for nearly 27 minutes because of an accident that saw AJ Allmendinger’s car flipped on its roof with 19 laps remaining.
When the red flag was lifted, the race restarted with 15 laps remaining and Busch as the leader. Then a caution with 10 laps remaining set up another restart.
But no one had enough to catch leader Busch as the field was setting itself up for a frantic dash to the finish. Then Ryan Newman spun with three laps remaining to send the race into overtime.
Busch was listed as the leader, followed by Stenhouse, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. Stenhouse got a push alongside Busch and made the pass stick for the win.
“I don’t know what his help was or anything like that, but he actually ran into the back of me, and then you’d think that that momentum would propel me forward some, and he just turned left and he went right by me,” Busch said. “That was pretty impressive, I guess, or I was just that slow and in his way.”
McMurray finished second in a Chevrolet and was followed by Busch in a Toyota, then Aric Almirola, another Ford driver and winner of the Xfinity Series race Saturday.
STAGE 1 WINNER:
Keselowski won the first stage in what seemed to be a Ford rout. He beat fellow Ford driver Stenhouse to win the segment.
Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Patrick, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones rounded out the top 10.
Stenhouse started from the pole and led 13 laps — the first time he’d led laps all season.
STAGE 2 WINNER:
Denny Hamlin gave Toyota its first taste of the front of the field as he won the second stage. It was Hamlin’s first stage win of the season.
He was followed by Kevin Harvick, Blaney, Truex, Johnson, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Kahne, Jones and McMurray.
A Saturday night stop at Kansas Speedway. Kyle Busch earned the victory last year — his third of the season — during a streak in which Joe Gibbs Racing won eight of the first 13 races of the season. Through 10 races this year, only Truex of sister team Furniture Row Racing has a victory in the Gibbs’ column. Truex won at Las Vegas in March.
JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer