Stenhouse Jr. hopes to bring Nationwide success to Sprint Cup
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was 10 laps from a second straight Nationwide Series championship at Homestead-Miami, running comfortably inside the top 10 and only needing to finish in the top 25 to ensure it. He could have cruised down the stretch, but that's not his style.
"I don't know cautious and I think that worries my crew chief (Mike Kelley) every weekend and worries Jack (Roush) as well," Stenhouse explained. "I race really hard every lap. I've tried the cautious approach when I first started (in Nationwide) and we didn't finish many races. I felt like I made more mistakes when I was cautious. I didn't feel like I was up on the wheel and ready to go, so that's the way I drive.
"I've just got to go out and drive the way I know how to and that's up on the wheel and drive it hard."
Stenhouse raced his Ford on the limit -- high and low, side-by-side -- to the checkered flag. They're the kind of moves that raise the risk of crashing, the only circumstance that might have prevented him from becoming the first Roush-Fenway Racing driver to win back-to-back championships in NASCAR. Stenhouse was disappointed to finish sixth.
"You come to win," Stenhouse said. "You don't want to share the stage with anybody."
Stenhouse's natural feel for speed and his ability to grow into the car control necessary to use it in his three seasons with Roush Fenway in Nationwide had separated him from the organization's other development drivers and positioned him at the top of the list for a shot at Sprint Cup. When Matt Kenseth announced in September he was leaving for Joe Gibbs Racing, team co-owner Roush promoted Stenhouse.
It wasn't always smooth going for Stenhouse. He began the 2010 season in Nationwide finishing 25th or worse nine times in the opening 12 races. When Stenhouse failed to qualify at Nashville, Roush took him out of the car for the next race at Kentucky. It got Stenhouse's attention. He was running at the finish in the last 20 races with seven top-10s, finished 16th in the points and became Rookie of the Year.
"For the last two and a half years, from the very first time we (with Roush and Stenhouse) sat in a trailer at Phoenix and spit in our hands, the three of us in 2010 said we would stick this out together, the ride has been amazing," Kelley said. "We had some tough days at the beginning and wrecked a lot of race cars and we missed a race at Nashville and nobody ever gave up or quit.
"We got to where we needed to be last year. That wasn't enough. We set the bar high. When I got back from the banquet last year and got to the shop, I had three guys left on my team from the championship deal. Jack said that we were going to do this again and put together a new team together for Ricky."
Roush's decision to keep the critical combination of driver and crew chief together was the key. Stenhouse won two races in 2011, six this season. He defeated runner-up Elliott Sadler, a Sprint Cup veteran with three wins, by 45 points in 2011 and 23 this year.
"I've had a lot of great driver-crew chief combinations over the years and I've never had anything that has worked better than the relationship between Mike Kelley and Ricky," Roush said. "They're both gonna do very well in this business for a long time to come. It's hard to put together a second championship on the heels of a first, especially when it's your first and second that you're dealing with. I guess it's been done, but certainly not by my crowd."
Stenhouse will be starting over with a new team and crew chief in 2013. Roush moved Kenseth's No. 17 team and crew chief Jimmy Fennig to Carl Edwards' No. 99. Kelley turned down an offer to move into Cup with Stenhouse, who will have a rookie crew chief in Scott Graves.
"I would normally not be an advocate for bringing a crew chief who hadn't been established with a rookie driver into the Cup series, but Scott Graves, he's been a prodigy for the small amount of experience he's had making final decisions," Roush said. "I think chemistry between a driver and a crew chief is really important and I think the chemistry between Scott Graves and Ricky Stenhouse is gonna be something incredible to watch for a first-year program for both of them."
Stenhouse has five Cup starts, one in 2011 and four this season. Graves, a Roush Fenway engineer since 2006, was the crew chief for three of Stenhouse's Cup races.
"It's gonna be good working with Scott," Stenhouse said. "We've got our team assembled. We know all the guys that are gonna be on it and everybody seems excited, so that's all you can ask for. I want people that want to be there and work hard. I think that's what makes great race teams. It's not the guys who have been doing it the longest. It's not the guys who know the most.
"It (Cup) is going to take some adjustment. We struggled in qualifying in the few Cup races we ran because I went and drove it like my Nationwide car and you can't do that. With all the horsepower (approximately 300 more than Nationwide cars), you have to lift, you have to use the brakes. Throughout the races we have run this year, I have learned how to be more patient with the race car. I will have a lot more time (pit stops) to work on it with the Cup side."
Stenhouse is the sixth driver to win back-to-back Nationwide championships. The previous two are Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1998-99 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05. Earnhardt was 16th in points with two wins his rookie Cup season of 2000 and Truex was 19th with two top-fives in 2006. Their performances are evidence of the magnitude of the jump Stenhouse faces going from Nationwide to Cup.
But Stenhouse has clearly earned his shot at the big time. He's 25, the same age as Earnhardt and Truex were in their second championship seasons and the same age as 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski was in his Nationwide title season in 2010.
Stenhouse sees similarities with Keselowski. He'd like to follow in his footsteps.
"Anything is possible," Stenhouse said. "I just won two championships in a row in a Nationwide car and I am just a kid from Mississippi. Are you kidding me? I look at him and I am 25 and three years down the road I will be 28 like he is. You look at the success on the Nationwide side that he and Paul Wolfe had and I feel like it is similar to the success Mike (Kelley) and I have had.
"I saw Brad struggle his first year in Cup trying to figure things out and I feel like he learned what he needed to learn. Then, they brought Paul in and they started working together again and they had their relationship from the Nationwide side. It isn't about having the best mechanics or tire guys, it is about having a team that works well together. I think that is what Brad and Paul did this year."
Can Stenhouse become another Keselowski? It's a question that will be answered over the next few seasons.