It's a Thursday night in Mooresville, N.C., and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is racing cars like usual.
Well, sort of. He's actually racing go-karts, not stock cars, and instead of being under the bright lights of Charlotte Motor Speedway or any other NASCAR track, Stenhouse and his guests for a SunnyD event are cooped up inside a converted warehouse. And he's wearing a T-shirt and jeans, not the typical fire suit. So, kind of still racing.
Stenhouse still takes it seriously, trading paint with moms and kids (and me, on two occasions). He weaves around the course, and when you're out there with them, you can appreciate that this is what the guy does for a living.
And he does it well -- Stenhouse is one of just 12 drivers left in this year's NASCAR playoffs. The caveat is that he was right on the border at No. 12 on the leaderboard, barely scraping through after last weekend's Dover race.
"It was a huge relief," Stenhouse said. "You know, I didn't really worry about it during the race very much. I just stuck to our game plan ... and we were good enough to get some stage points, and that was the difference."
Stenhouse is currently No. 8 in the standings, ahead of the Dover runner-up Chase Elliott and a few other remaining playoff drivers. But Stenhouse knows he can't rest on his prior accomplishments if he wants to advance again.
"We know we've got a lot of work to do," he said. "We changed a lot coming into Charlotte, so we've got high hopes. We're hoping to make a big impact on our performance."
This season has been Stenhouse's best in the Cup Series, and it's not even close. He won two races, his first wins in NASCAR's top circuit, at two of its most notable tracks in Daytona and Talladega. And he made it to the playoffs for the first time.
But again, he isn't resting on his laurels. He was fortunate to advance to the second round, but now he's in a better position to advance again.
So does Stenhouse actually think he has what it takes to make the third round of the playoffs in his first postseason trip?
"I'm very optimistic," he said. "If we could average a tenth-place finish throughout the three races, then I think we'll have a shot at it."
For one night at least, it's good not to get caught up in all the standings and rankings and expectations. It's nice just to eat some barbecue, sign some autographs and have some good old-fashioned fun. Admittedly, it's a cool experience racing against a professional driver, even if he passed me once and almost crashed me another (but ended up getting stuck himself). Eventually the engines shut off and it's time for Stenhouse to go home, get some rest and prepare for qualifying the next night.
He knows better than anyone that he needs to.
"These caliber of teams are just better," he said. "We're cutting them out. We've definitely got to perform at our highest level."
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