Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has unfinished business in the Nationwide Series before replacing Matt Kenseth in Roush-Fenway Racing's No. 17 Ford in Sprint Cup next year.
The 25-year-old from Olive Branch, Miss., is on the verge of back-to-back Nationwide titles. He's built momentum by eliminating a 13-point deficit in the past two races to climb into a tie at 1,170 points with Elliott Sadler for the championship heading into Saturday's race at Phoenix International Raceway.
"I think [another championship] would be huge," Stenhouse said. "Last year, it was cool getting our first one and then to be able to back it up, I think it would be a big accomplishment. I think it's been tough. I feel like we've performed better this year than we have last year, but we found ourselves behind. It would be a huge accomplishment for our team and some good momentum."
Stenhouse has six victories -- four more than last year -- and 18 top-five finishes, both series-leading totals. But he's been chasing Sadler, who's led the series following 25 of the 31 races and has four wins, for most of the season.
"Last year I made fewer mistakes actually," Stenhouse said. "I think this year we're in more contention to win races and so I think sometimes I lose track of that we've got a championship to win and I go out to win races. We've kind of got to get back to last year where we don't' make any mistakes. But I don't think it's any easier. I think it's actually a little tougher to get your second one in a row. But I think we're up for the challenge."
Stenhouse came from two laps down to win at Kansas, taking the lead in the final corner following a green-white-checkered finish when Kyle Busch ran out of gas. Sadler finished fourth, allowing Stenhouse to chop seven points off his lead.
Both contenders struggled with their handling at Texas last Saturday. Stenhouse made a late charge to finish fourth and Sadler dropped to 11th in the closing laps. After 31 races, and with no playoff format like the Sprint Cup's chase, they were dead even. Stenhouse's six wins would give him the championship if they tied in points.
"[Being tied in points] doesn't matter now," Stenhouse said. "We have to be leading after Homestead. That is still our goal and still what we have our eye on. We have gained some points the past two weeks, which is good."
The championship battle between Stenhouse and Sadler is a rematch of what happened a year ago. Stenhouse led Sadler by 17 points going into the next-to-last race at Phoenix, but Sadler was knocked out in a crash, allowing Stenhouse to gain 24 points, virtually clinching the title. Stenhouse finished second and Sadler sixth in the finale at Homestead to expand the final margin to 45.
That race at Phoenix last year was a bitter disappointment for Sadler, who has not won a NASCAR touring series championship in his career. Prior to the Nationwide Series, Sadler spent 12 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, where he has only three wins in 430 starts.
However, Sadler showed off his better side in March, when he won at Phoenix; Stenhouse finished just behind him, in third.
"With two races left in the season, there is still a lot to be decided with this championship," Sadler said. "This time last year, we saw our season basically end after being wrecked toward the end of the race. It was a bit of redemption being able to come back and win at Phoenix earlier this season and I know that we are looking to do the same thing this weekend."
Austin Dillon also is in mathematical contention for the championship, 21 points behind Stenhouse and Sadler, but getting past both seems unlikely. Both drivers excel at the final two tracks, so it's going to come down to the little things to determine who will take the title.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself and on our race team," Stenhouse said. "But there's definitely a lot of pressure on everybody running for a championship and it doesn't really matter if it's a Nationwide Series championship or your local dirt track championship.
"It's tough to win championships, no matter what. That pressure is there."