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Fourth-place finish at Phoenix almost as good as a win for Stenhouse

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is thrilled with the improvements made to his car and it played a role in a strong showing in Phoenix.

Given the struggles he’s had this season, Ricky Stenhouse wound up with a fourth-place win in Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

True, Stenhouse didn’t get to victory lane, but it was almost as good as a win. It was his best NASCAR Cup finish thus far this season – and his top finish, and the best overall showing for Roush Fenway Racing, since Stenhouse ended up second at Bristol last summer.

“We have had some bad luck but today was fun,” said Stenhouse, who started 2017 with finishes of 31st (Daytona), 13th (Atlanta) and 33rd (Las Vegas). “I thought we made our car better throughout the race and it has been awhile since we’ve done that so I was pretty happy.”

Stenhouse was the highest-finishing Ford driver at Phoenix, ahead of Brad Keselowski (fifth) and Kevin Harvick (sixth).

The key to Stenhouse’s strong finish was a gutsy strategy call late in the race by crew chief Brian Pattie. When Joey Logano wrecked with six laps left in regulation, Pattie told Stenhouse to stay on-track instead of pitting.

Stenhouse was one of three drivers that stayed out, as well as eventual race winner Ryan Newman.

“There at the end, I thought (Pattie) wanted us to stay out and I kind of second guessed him,” Stenhouse said. “When I told him everyone was coming down pit road, I had already committed to stay out and that paid off.

“We made the car better throughout the race and we stuck with it, passed a lot of race cars today and made it pretty fun.”

It was a satisfying showing for a car that gave Stenhouse problems during practice on Friday and Saturday, as well as early on in Sunday’s race.

“We weren’t that great during practice as far as speed goes, but I thought our car had good long run speed and we proved that today when we were able to get some long runs,” Stenhouse said. “We weren’t as bad on restarts as I thought we were going to be.”

It’s been a rough last few years for Roush Fenway Racing, which has not reached victory lane in the Cup Series since former driver Carl Edwards’ two wins in 2014.

But Dave Pericak, Director of Ford Performance, never gave up on RFR or its abilities. That confidence paid off Sunday, Stenhouse said.

“I have definitely seen a difference in the quality,” Stenhouse said of his team’s efforts thus far in 2017. “We still have a long way to go but we have made a big improvement from last year, especially the end of last year.

“… I think our cars and the attitude at the shop is really good. Trevor (Bayne) has some solid finishes here in the first few races and that is something encouraging and something to build off of. I feel like we have had speed, just haven’t gotten the finishes for the speed we have. It is better to have speed and have to figure out how to get the finishes.

“Today I thought we had a 10th-place car on the long run and took a gamble and were able to get a better finish there at the end.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski