Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is enjoying a breakout season in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series thanks in part to wins at Daytona and Talladega, earning him a spot in the playoffs for the first time.

The wins were Roush Fenway Racing's first since June 22, 2014, when Carl Edwards won at Sonoma. Like Edwards, those days appeared to be gone for the Ford racing team until a hot start to the 2017 season propelled Stenhouse to victory lane in May at Talladega. 

In an exclusive interview with Omnisport, Stenhouse shared his thoughts on Sunday's opening race in the Round of 12, Roush Fenway Racing’s improvements, protests connected to the national anthem, the future of NASCAR without Dale Earnhardt Jr., possible sexism in the sport and more. 

Q: Entering the Round of 12, what is your focus: Winning or staying ahead of other playoff drivers?

A: We’ve looked at it a couple different ways this week. We’ve been to Charlotte, Talladega and Kansas already this year, so we looked at our finishes and obviously our win at Talladega would advance us to the next round, but we took that out and just used the points system and it would have us transferring to the next round if everyone had the same finishes as they did in the first two races this year. We know looking at it that way that we are capable of making it to the next round, but we have to make less mistakes then we did in the first round. That was mainly on me. I made a lot of mistakes at Chicago that cost us eight or nine spots at least, making (the standings) a lot more tight going into Dover. The points reset, we are eighth in the standings right now, so technically we don’t have to gain any points, we just need to stay where we are. We haven’t brought our best cars to the track the last few weeks, we’ve changed a lot for this weekend (at Charlotte) and try to get better as fast as we can.

Q: Of the remaining races in the playoffs, which track are you looking forward to the most?

A: Talladega. We’ve won there earlier this year. It’s a wild-card race, we can really make up a lot of points in this round or we can fall behind. It’s one of those race tracks that you never know what's going to happen, but I think that’s a big turning point in this round. I’m looking forward to it and I think if we can have a good race there we can set ourselves up to transfer to the third round of the playoffs. That would be huge for our season to make it to the third round.

Q: Before your win at Talladega this season, Roush Fenway Racing’s last win was in June 2014 with Carl Edwards; 2015 was a down year, 2016 was a bit better, and this season you and teammate Trevor Bayne are making some noise. What has changed with the team?

A: Hard work. This sport isn’t easy to come back when you have fallen behind, and it takes time. I would say that is the biggest thing for us, just taking time. We have all worked really hard. You start moving people around in different parts of the company to get the most out of everybody. I think finally that is starting to pay off. We still have a long ways to go, but this season Trevor and I have picked up our performance but we are still not happy with our performances at the same time. We started the season strong, and it looked like we were going to have a really solid year, but then we kind of tapered off there towards the end of the summer and now we are trying to catch back up from that. We are a little disappointed in that, but over the past three years we have been working hard and I think its time to get where we want to be.

Q: If a NASCAR driver ever protested during the national anthem before a race, how do you think the fans and NASCAR community would respond?

A: I think the fans would really react similarly to NFL fans. I think our fans and NFL fans are very passionate about our country and our men and women who fight for our freedom, our freedom to free speech and free protest for that matter. I think there are a lot of fans that would think it is disrespectful to do it during the national anthem, but at the same time I feel it is their right to protest and do what they want. It’s really an opinion as I see it. They do have the freedom to protest, I don’t see any NASCAR employees, drivers, pit crew members, or teams that will protest the flag because we really believe in our country. They have the right to protest for sure, and that’s a country that we want to be in, where we have the freedom to express our opinions.

Q: Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon already have, and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from the sport. Where do you see NASCAR 10 years from now? Will it ever be as popular as it was in the 1990s?

A: I sure hope so because I was not here 15 years ago when the sport, I feel like, was really on a high. A lot of us younger drivers or the ones that are fairly new to the sport compared to the Dale Jrs., Jimmie Johnsons and Kevin Harvicks of the world, want to see and experience that. It is definitely going to take something a little bit different than what our sport was originally ran. It’s going to take a lot of social media, doing things outside of the race car to draw attention to our sport. I think we have a lot of drivers that are doing that right now. I think the sport is in good shape with the drivers that we have, and we are willing to put ourselves out there like Ryan Blaney and I going out to do "American Ninja Warrior" this year. Things like that is what it is going to take to continue to grow our fan base. Just that one appearance on "American Ninja Warrior," Blaney and I get hits all the time of people talking about us doing the show and how they became fans of NASCAR because of it.

Q: Denny Hamlin said he wants NASCAR drivers and crew members to have higher salaries from a redistribution of TV revenue. Do other drivers share this opinion? Would a real drivers union possibly help?

A: I’m not real sure about the drivers union, I haven’t looked too much into the NFL players union or the NBA's, I’ve never seen how that is ran and handled. Drivers salaries are all over the board and none of our drivers would complain about making a bigger salary. Our salaries aren’t near what they were eight years ago as the money in the sport isn’t where it was. Some teams definitely struggle finding sponsorship to keep cars out on the race track. I do agree with most things Denny said, it’s definitely a tough business, but our owners work really hard with NASCAR to try to make it work for everybody. I’m not in the drivers council, so I’m not in a lot of those meetings, I kind of get the Cliffs Notes version of what was discussed.

Q: If you had been in Ryan Newman’s shoes Sunday at Dover, racing for your playoff life and Jeff Gordon made a comment about costing his buddy Chase Elliott a shot at his first win, would you have reacted in the same way?

A: Yeah, for sure. I saw video of them later in the garage, and it looked like Ryan Newman got to explain his situation and it looked like maybe Jeff Gordon was a little bit more understanding. If I am the No. 24 team, I am pretty upset if a driver didn’t get out of the way, but also you are the leader, you are a lot faster than that car. I would have just said "go around me," because here is the scenario that Newman was in: I was a lap down and was trying to stay on the lead lap. If the caution comes out and Newman stays on the lead lap, he can come in and take tires and maybe can advance on a restart, pass a couple cars and gain those points he needed (to move on to the Round of 12). But if he was a lap down, Newman would not be able to pass four cars and gain more points on myself, so if I was Ryan I would have definitely raced as hard as I could and probably would have tried to block the leader. That was all about his season right there. If the caution would have came out and he’d have stayed on the lead lap, everyone would have been talking about how smart he was and how hard he was driving.

Q: Cam Newton got in some hot water for commenting that it was “funny” to hear a football question from a female reporter. How do drivers perceive female reporters in NASCAR’s male-dominated sport?

A: I think we have a lot of great reporters in our media center and a lot of female reporters and personalities on TV that do a phenomenal job for our sport. To me, some of them are more passionate than the male reporters. The only thing that I care about for a media person is the dedication to our sport and the love for our sport and continue to see it grow. There are a ton of women around our sport with so much knowledge on it that it’s all they ever wanted to do. It’s no different than any other sport. I think to downplay a woman’s role in sports is not a good idea because a lot of women love sport, whether they watch it, report on it or work on a team.

Q: How does Danica Patrick handle possible sexism in and around NASCAR?

A: I think that Danica has dealt with that throughout her whole racing career. There are drivers that get mad if she is faster and is going to pass them. I think they race her harder, and I see it throughout the weekend. She is very aware of it and is like, ‘Hey, I don’t want anyone to pass me on the race track, so I really don’t care about what anyone else thinks." I look at what she does in a race car and I think she performs at a high level. Getting in our cars is not something that is easy to do. Heck, there are a lot of weekends that she is faster than I am and it’s awesome. I think it shows that she's got the talent to do this sport, and she has set a great example for a lot of young women in auto racing. There are a lot of people that look up to her, and so many girls that race go-karts that come up and talk to her throughout the weekend. They want to be just like her, and I think that it’s awesome.

Q: Thanks to SunnyD and the "Race with Ricky" experience, a lucky fan will be attending her very first NASCAR race Sunday at Charlotte. What do you hope her and any first-time NASCAR attendees will take away from this weekend?

A: For one, its going to be nice to race go-karts with her and her friends. I think a lot of people go to other sporting events and don’t really get to hang out with athletes. In NASCAR, we pride ourselves on being accessible to fans. A lot of our fans who don’t come to our races, they don’t get to see how accessible we are throughout the weekend. That would be one takeaway that I hope new fans take away from this weekend, but also the intensity that we have with our playoffs. We are here, we are just as intense as all the other sports and their playoffs. The level of racing we have throughout the whole year is pretty high, and I want them to see that and enjoy. All of our fans are passionate and each driver that they want to cheer for is really respectful of all the other drivers  — it’s a really cool sport to be around.