Faced with having to “go or go home” in his first time out in a Sprint Cup car, young Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came through like an old pro and qualified ninth for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I’m relieved to get this thing in,” Stenhouse said after running a lap at 190.752 miles per hour. “I knew the car had the speed. Our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion was fast in practice. Whether I could put it all together was a different story and we were able to, which was good.
“I left a little bit out there because we just had to get in.”
Stenhouse, filling in for the recuperating Trevor Bayne, also had praise for his team, led by crew chief Donnie Wingo.
“These Wood Brothers guys did an awesome job, and I just can’t wait to get in the race on Sunday and just try to make all the laps we can,” he said. “It’s a long race. I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Despite winning the season-opening Daytona 500, the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team has stayed with the plan of running a limited schedule. Missing races has caused them to drop out of the top 35 in car owner points and no longer be guaranteed starting spots for races.
On Thursday at Charlotte, Stenhouse, the 23-year-old former sprint car racer from Olive Branch, Miss., was the last qualifier to hit the track. Like a kicker in football having to wait through a time out before attempting the game-winning field goal, Stenhouse had to sit in his car while the pressure built.
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said Stenhouse was up to the challenge.
“There was a lot of pressure on him, but he really stepped up,” Wood said. “Donnie and the guys worked hard on the car, and it all fell into place.”
Over the years, the Wood Brothers have had some great moments during qualifying sessions at Charlotte. They’ve won 20 poles, including 13 in a row in the 1970s, a record that likely will never be broken.
Wood said there was pressure to continue the streak back in the ‘70s and similar pressure to make the race this time.
“Right now this is a big night,” Wood said. “It’s been a few months since we had to get in on speed, and I’d kind of forgotten how rough it can be. Fortunately it all worked out.”
The Coca-Cola is set to get the green flag on Sunday just after 6 p.m. with TV coverage on FOX.