Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s stock on the Sprint Cup prospect board has soared this season. He had his first win in the Nationwide Series at Iowa in May, followed by an 11th-place finish in his Cup debut in the 600-miler at Charlotte a week later. They were major breakthroughs that have put him in position for additional opportunities in Cup. How soon those opportunities will present themselves is the question.
Stenhouse drives for Roush Fenway Racing and is under contract for next season. There are multiple possibilities for Stenhouse in Cup under the Roush Fenway and Ford umbrella, both full- and part-time. They will shake out after Carl Edwards makes his decision to either stay with Roush Fenway or depart as a free agent. Stenhouse could end up at RFR or with the affiliated Wood Brothers and Richard Petty organizations. This much is certain: Roush and Ford will find a place for Stenhouse in Cup. He's come on fast in a relatively short career in stock cars and they need to find out how good he can become.
There aren't many paved racetracks around where Stenhouse grew up in Olive Branch, Miss. His background is Sprint Cars on dirt.
"It's just what I grew up with," Stenhouse explained. "We don't have asphalt tracks and my dad raced Sprint Cars."
Stenhouse began driving Sprint Cars at 15.
"I thought something I would do for a living was race Sprint Cars," he said. He was doing exactly that when Tony Stewart hired him in 2007 for his USAC team.
"It was a great opportunity," Stenhouse said. "I guess you could say it was a steppingstone."
Stenhouse signed with RFR at the end of 2007. They started him in the ARCA Series in 2008, and he won at Kentucky, the sixth race of the season. Stenhouse ran part-time in Nationwide in 2009 to preserve his rookie status for 2010.
"It was our goal to win Rookie of the Year," Stenhouse said. "For a while it looked like we might not get that done."
The start of the 2010 Nationwide season was a struggle for Stenhouse. He was eliminated by accidents in five of the opening 12 races and finished 25th or worse nine times. After he failed to qualify for Nashville, Jack Roush sat him down for the next race at Kentucky.
"I went to the racetrack even when I wasn't in the race," Stenhouse said. "It got me focusing a little more. We had fast cars and I had to make sure they got to the end."
Stenhouse was running at the finish of the remaining 20 races. He was third at Daytona and fourth at Richmond and Homestead-Miami. Stenhouse had seven top-10s in the last 20 races and finished 16th in the points to win Rookie of the Year.
"To come back and get that done was really cool for us," he said. "That was a big deal, what we were gunning for [that] the whole year."
Stenhouse had made the progress necessary to save his job. With limited sponsorship for its Nationwide program, Roush kept Stenhouse and released Colin Braun, who had won a race for RFR in the Camping World Truck Series before moving into Nationwide. Braun had six top-10s, but no top-fives in 24 Nationwide starts in 2010.
Nineteen races into the 2011 season, Stenhouse is third in points and challenging for the championship, 18 points behind leader Elliott Sadler going into Saturday's race at Nashville. Including his win at Iowa, he has seven top-fives and 14 top-10s. He's had five top-fives in the past nine races.
Stenhouse is one of three non-Cup regulars to win one race in Nationwide this year. The others are Justin Allgaier and Reed Sorenson.
"You always think to get a win is huge, but actually getting it makes you realize [just] how big it is," Stenhouse said. "You're not satisfied with any top-fives after that. Getting that win was good. We struggled last year for a while and to come back and get a win was huge."
Roush Fenway Nationwide teammate and Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne was scheduled to drive for the Wood Brothers during the Sprint Cup race at Charlotte, but his medical issues forced him out of the car. Stenhouse became his replacement.
"It was a huge break [Charlotte] to get our first [Cup] start," Stenhouse said. "It's a big event, big race with a lot of people there. I was hoping Trevor would be back, but the doctors didn't allow it, and he was really supportive about it.
"It was just unbelievable to be with the Wood Brothers and the history they have in our sport. It was a bonus qualifying ninth and finishing 11th. I never dreamed we would have done that."
Stenhouse races with a large contingent of Cup drivers on the Nationwide Series, which made the transition to a Cup race less rough.
"You always think you're ready," Stenhouse said. "Being ready and getting out there each and every week is a different thing, but we had a good run. Charlotte was huge. You've got to do it [Cup) at some point, you've got to start somewhere. I felt comfortable out there. I have a lot of respect for them and I wanted to earn their respect by giving them room.
"We have Cup guys in the Nationwide races every week. I think we've had as many as 15 in one race. It's never the same as Cup, but we race against them quite a bit and it helped."
Stenhouse, 23, says he's thinking about the rest of the Nationwide season and not a future in Cup.
"I'm just focused on winning this championship right now," he said. "There's a lot of guys with a lot more experience running for this championship ... but there's no reason why I can't win it. We have a lot of talent on this team, the pit crew and the guys who work on the car, and hopefully, we can get it done.
"It's my goal to get to Cup. I'm not sure when that will be. We're going to race each weekend, one weekend at a time."