When the year began expectations were high for Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was coming off a strong finish to the 2013 season en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors.
Thus far, though, Stenhouse has languished. Through 16 races the sophomore driver is 27th in points, despite a runner-up result at Bristol and two other top-10s. His average finish is a lowly 24th.
Stenhouse's problems are emblematic of Roush Fenway Racing's struggles to find speed on intermediate ovals -- the exact kind of track as Kentucky Speedway, the site of Saturday's Quaker State 400. Roush's only two wins in 2014 came on a short track and a road course, but with the Sprint Cup schedule consisting heavily of 1.5- to 2-mile venues, running well on these tracks is paramount to a successful season.
"We're definitely looking for a good run; we've been struggling as of late," Stenhouse said Friday.
So what is hampering Roush and has it far behind the pace set by Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing, the two most dominant teams at this point in the season?
"I think we're missing a lot of things," Stenhouse said. "The problem is that it's not just one thing that we've missed it on.
"Everybody at the shop is working really hard. We've changed a lot. Jack [Roush] has put a lot of money into testing. We've gone and tested a lot. We've still got some more tests planned. I think we've missed it as a 17 team at race tracks. I've missed it as a driver when we've had decent cars."
What provides Stenhouse hope is the revised Chase for the Sprint Cup qualification system NASCAR implemented in the offseason. No longer does a driver have to be consumed with accumulating points, and a slow start to the season no longer means a mad scramble to gain entry into the playoffs.
The new format greatly rewards winning, and any driver who can win one of 26 regular-season races and maintain a spot in the top 30 in the point standings is virtually assured of securing a Chase berth. All of which means Stenhouse has a clear goal with 10 regular-season races remaining.
"If you win, it kind of changes your whole season, and that goes for anybody," Stenhouse said. "... We've just got to win a race. I think we could really benefit from that this year, if we take advantage of it."