Ricky Stenhouse Jr. isn't panicking after slow start to 2018

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. waits to go out on the track during a practice session for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

LAWRENCE, Kansas — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s weekend at Martinsville was not a good one.

Stenhouse crashed his primary car in practice on Saturday and didn’t have a chance to make a lap with his backup car before the race because qualifying was snowed out. Stenhouse had to start at the back of the field and as soon as he took the green flag he knew he was in for an incredibly long and awful day.

“We found some things that were catastrophically wrong, so the whole Martinsville race I was just riding around and trying to stay out of the way and really not get any damage on our car because I knew from the first lap that something major was wrong,” Stenhouse told Yahoo Sports Wednesday after going through football drills as part of an appearance with the University of Kansas football team for Kansas Speedway.

Stenhouse finished the race 37th, 19 laps down and last among the cars that finished the race. The poor finish — he earned a single point — means Stenhouse is 21st in the points standings and 149 points back of points leader Kyle Busch just six races into the season.

That massive deficit doesn’t necessarily mean Stenhouse is already worrying about having to get a win to qualify for the playoffs. It helps that Kevin Harvick has won three races already.

“I feel like we’ve had some bad races and we’re maybe a little further out in points than we want to be, but when you have one guy who’s winning all the races it leaves a lot of positions open for points,” Stenhouse said. “So last year we had so many winners. We won, Austin Dillon won — there was just quite a few winners. So last year kind of threw it off. There were guys who were 12th in overall points that missed the playoffs.”

Stenhouse got his first career victory in May at Talladega, where he made a pass for the lead on Kyle Busch on the penultimate lap. He backed that up with a victory at Daytona in July, where he once again made a late pass for the lead, this time against David Ragan.

Those wins got him into the playoffs for the first time in his career, though he was eliminated in the second round.

Given Stenhouse’s success a year ago on restrictor plate tracks — he was fast in the Daytona 500 until he was caught up in a crash — it’s easier to see his path to a second playoff appearance going through victory lane at Daytona or Talladega than it is making it in via points.

Does that mean Stenhouse will be putting extra pressure on himself at those two tracks?

“I don’t put any extra pressure but I go in with a lot more confidence,” Stenhouse said. “Going into Daytona this year I felt like I was out there, I knew people were going to have to beat us to win the race and our cars are really strong. But then again on the other hand, you don’t want to be confined to those two tracks only to win. Last year our short track program was really good, most of our top 10s were on short tracks. I think our third-best track of getting a win would be Bristol.

“Bristol and Talladega and Daytona are tracks that we have circled. So we’ve got four opportunities left to go win a race to get into the playoffs if we don’t get in on points or win another race.”

Long before Stenhouse came to the Cup Series in 2013, Roush Fenway Racing was the team to beat on intermediate tracks. Throughout Stenhouse’s tenure with the team it has struggled to come close to meeting those standards.

But there have been flashes, at least in qualifying early this season. Stenhouse had top-10 starting positions at Atlanta and Las Vegas. If he gets one at Texas on Friday, it’ll be a sign of progress if he finishes in that same vicinity.

“We’re constantly changing things on our car to find more speed a the mile-and-a-half racetracks,” Stenhouse said. “Over the past three seasons that was my number one concern every time we go to our post-race meetings. Hey, we need to get better on these mile-and-a-half racetracks.”

“We know things that will help us, but it’s also hard to fix those things and stay within the box that NASCAR gives you. Other teams, they just got out ahead. And you’re always trying to catch up, but the problem is those teams are still pushing forward as well.”

It’s hard to hear or read that quote from Stenhouse and not think of Harvick, who has already scored two wins on 1.5-mile tracks and won last fall’s race at Texas. He’s the favorite Sunday, and if he wins for a fourth time, Stenhouse isn’t going to complain.

“For me, I couldn’t care less if Kevin Harvick goes and wins all the races because, like I said, it leaves it open,” he said.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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