New wrinkles in place for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 2018

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in 2017 and will continue racing for Roush Fenway Racing this season. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

TULSA, Okla. -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doesn't plan to let one flip in a midget car deter him from his plans for 2018.

He plans to run in more midget races outside his NASCAR Cup schedule as he comes off the best Cup season of his career.

Stenhouse has been in the spotlight for off-the-track news after his split with Danica Patrick in the offseason. He declined to comment on the breakup, but he appeared in a good place and upbeat last weekend at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa.

He grew up in sprint-car racing -- he drove for Tony Stewart, winning five midget races and two sprint-car races in 2007 -- and plans to return to his roots more this year in addition to what he hopes will be another career season at Roush Fenway Racing.

Stenhouse earned his first career Cup win by capturing Talladega in May, and then backed up that restrictor-plate performance by winning at Daytona in July. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career and ended up 13th in the Cup standings, his best finish by six spots.

Maybe even a bigger incentive to get started in 2018 comes from the final four races in 2017, where he finished between eighth and 15th.

"When we ended the season at Homestead, I felt really good," Stenhouse said. "We had a decent run and I kind of wanted to keep that going, but then the season ended.

"It will be good to get back in the stock car. It's always fun to warm up here at Chili Bowl and get back in the car."

At the Chili Bowl, Stenhouse struggled a little bit but did qualify from the C-Main to the B-Main before a flip early in the B-Main ended his day. He was happy that six of the eight cars of the team -- co-owned by Richard Marshall and Tim Clauson, father of Stenhouse's good friend, the late Bryan Clauson -- made the 24-driver main event.

"Somebody hung a right and I was on the outside," Stenhouse said about his crash. "It's been a while since I flipped one. I forgot how it feels. It's definitely not the easiest feeling you have."

But Stenhouse is willing to risk having that feeling more this summer. He pretty much stopped his open-wheel racing once he went Cup racing in 2013. He sees younger drivers such as Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell being allowed to continue to run those cars (as well as winged sprint cars) along with their stock-car schedules and wants to do the same.

"I plan on running some throughout the summer," Stenhouse said. "Tim and I were talking about some scheduling. It will be good.

"Christopher and Kyle run a lot throughout the year. It's something that I did up until 2013, and Jack [Roush] asked me to kind of stop for a while while we went to Cup. Now I'm like, 'Well, I'd like to get back and do some running.' So we'll see how that goes. Some off-weekends will be filled up now with some dirt racing, which will be fun."

Stenhouse might have an easier time convincing Roush executives to allow him to moonlight in other cars if he can continue to improve on the Cup side.

"We've got some new stuff [on the Cup side] that we've been working on this offseason that I'm kind of excited to get on the track and really just get back in the car," Stenhouse said.

Stenhouse, 30, also will head to Daytona next month with a little bit of a different attitude. Having won two of the last three restrictor-plate races, including the previous race at Daytona, gives him confidence.

"At Daytona [for the 500], we always just kind of showed up, and it was like, 'Hey, let's get a good finish and get the season started off on the right foot,'" Stenhouse said.

"But now after winning a couple of speedway races, you really kind of go in thinking we have a shot winning the 500 and that's the biggest thing for me -- the reality of actually winning it is a little more clear than it used to be."

After Daytona, though, Stenhouse could face an unpredictable season. With Chevrolet debuting the Camaro this year, both Toyota and Chevrolet will have introduced new body styles since the start of the 2017 season.

Ford is expected to revise its car for 2019.

"There's definitely some advantages when you build new cars," Stenhouse said. "Fords have had their advantages at times. We're just going to have to wait until we get our new car built. ... Toyota came out with theirs and they did a good job with it and I'm sure the Camaro that Chevy came out with is going to be just as good."

Stenhouse said there could be a new wrinkle in 2018 that evens the competition. NASCAR will start scanning the bodies of cars during inspection -- its new body and chassis template platform that uses lasers and cameras is called "Hawkeye" -- and Stenhouse believes that could have an impact.

"The Toyotas and Chevys, there's a lot of gray area between their cars that they built in them," Stenhouse said. "It was smart to build things in like that. We'll see if the Hawkeye system maybe evens it out a little bit."