Stenhouse looks towards prime playoff opportunity at Talladega

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looks to go three of four on superspeedways this season, he’ll be doing it with an eye on a bigger prize.

Stenhouse, who scored his first career victory in the Spring race at Talladega before following it up with another win at Daytona in July, enters a race on Sunday that presents him with his best opportunity to score a victory and advance to the Round of 8. He will, however, have to do it with a brand new car. Stenhouse now owns the car he drove to his first career win, and his Daytona car was cut into pieces for sponsor Fifth Third Bank.

“These teams are so capable, they white-line scan all these cars, and they can build them really close to identical,” Stenhouse told ESPN. “If you bring back the same car, I don’t think you’re ahead. You’re behind because everybody is trying to get better, especially in the playoffs. I like that we’ve got a new one.”

Despite the outside perception that Stenhouse needs a victory to ensure his spot in the next round, the two-time champion of the then-Nationwide Series isn’t taking that approach.

“I don’t think we have to win to advance. If we have a top-5 with some stage points, I think that will put us above that cut line going into Kansas. We can’t act like it’s win it or nothing because really we’re not in that spot right now.”

If qualifying is any indication, the Olive Branch, Mississippi native has another fast car. Stenhouse posted the fifth-fastest time in qualifying for Sunday’s race.

Fellow playoff contenders Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson, meanwhile, also posted fast times. Both made the final round of qualifying, with Johnson qualifying 8th and Larson qualifying 12th.