An interview with: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jack Roush and Mike Kelly

Championship podium: NASCAR Nationwide Series 2011 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush-Fenway Ford celebrates
Championship podium: NASCAR Nationwide Series 2011 champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush-Fenway Ford celebrates

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

THE MODERATOR: Joining us now at the podium is the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series driver champion along with his crew chief, driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., driver of the No. 6 Blackwell Angus Ford. He's joined by crew chief Mike Kelly. You finished 45 points ahead of Elliott Sadler. You're the seventh former NASCAR Sunoco Rookie of the Year to go on and win the series championship. I think in the first season of the selective for a championship that the NASCAR Nationwide Series could not have named a finer champion. So congratulations, and your thoughts about being the champion.

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Man, it's unbelievable. There's a lot of people that's worked really hard for this. My family, they've sacrificed a lot; Jack Roush, all these guys on our team. They were with us when we were struggling and they never gave up last year and really believed in me. Everybody at Ford Racing, Blackwell Angus Beef and Cargo. Everyone has worked really hard and rallied together to be a team effort.

Our cars back at the shop are phenomenal, all the guys that work hard there, everybody at Roush Yates Engines. It's a total team effort and it means the world to be able to bring this championship to Jack and just being a little bit of the history that he has in this sport, and for Ford to get the manufacturers and for Jack to get the owners, it was for sure just a huge team effort. Mike Kelly never let us down. He rallied us even when we weren't good, and when I would get a little mad out there on the racetrack, he straightened me out and helped us keep digging.

THE MODERATOR: Crew chief Mike Kelly, congratulations on the championship, and talk about what it's like to be the crew chief for the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series driver champion.

MIKE KELLY: Just like Ricky said, it means a lot. I heard Carl say the other day, it's not about the trophy that you get, it's the journey that you go on to get there, and I couldn't say that any more for working with Ricky the last 16, 18 months that we've been together. We had some tough times last year, and that was documented very well, and anyone could have walked away. Jack could have turned his back on him, Ford could have, and our guys could have. There was a lot of tough days and grim nights back at the shop, and nobody did, I'm so proud of my guys and proud of Jack and Ford for sticking behind Ricky and seeing it through, and to come through what we did all last year and during the off-season, we really put our heads down and we weren't picked to be the favorite, and that's probably what helped us the most. We were kind of overshadowed by the Elliott Sadlers and the Allgaiers and Reed Sorensons, and that kind of gave us the fight and the desire back at the shop to make sure we come out strong.

Like Ricky said, it's a total team effort. It's not me. I've got a great engineer staff. We've got Robby Reiser back there. We moved our shop. Jack let us move down to the Cup shop in Concord and that was a big plus for us, and the cars we get out there are second to none and the engines are probably second to none. We never quit.

We had bad days at the beginning of the year. We learned as a group on fuel mileage and fuel strategy. I felt like we gave away a couple wins early in the year based on that and just really proud of the effort this team put in during the hard times. We really dug in there and finished it off strong.

THE MODERATOR: We're also joined by owner Jack Roush, and we made history tonight in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. For the first time a team won both the driver and Owners Championship but with two different primary drivers. Obviously Ricky Stenhouse winning the drivers championship and then the No. 60 driven by Carl Edwards, 33 races, Billy Johnson one race, won the Owners Championship. So congratulations, Jack, on winning the daily double I guess you could say. I know that's a great accomplishment for your race team.

JACK ROUSH: When Carl won his Nationwide championship in 2007, and of course I didn't win the Owners Championship, I didn't know what I did wrong. I didn't do anything more wrong than I did right this time. It is an honor that's given to team owners that's really at the mercy of the efforts of the crew chiefs and the drivers and all the crew, and I'm glad to be sharing the honors with Carl and with Ricky and with Mike Beam and with Mike Kelly.

One thing I want to say, I've been doing this for this is my 24th year and my third Nationwide championship, or third Nationwide championship I've helped a driver win, but Ricky sits here tonight because of the sacrifice and dedication of a great family, and without his mother and his father, and I'm looking at his mother across the room here and I saw his dad earlier and his sisters, but without their sacrifice, their dedication and their determination to see to it Ricky had everything he needed to develop into the driver he's become, it would not have happened because people like myself or Tony Stewart or other owners out there that have got the race cars would never be able to identify, find a Ricky Stenhouse without the family doing all they have to do and the dark days before it really goes public.

But Mike Kelly did a great job this year, Mike Beam did a great job behind the scenes, Carl Edwards provided great leadership from a driver point of view, Trevor Bayne did a great job challenging Ricky in some ways and supporting him in others and they challenged and supported one another. So it's been a great team effort that we're celebrating tonight. But I'm especially thankful and respectful of the sacrifice of the whole Stenhouse family made to get Ricky where he is.

Q. Is this going to be the biggest thing to ever happen in Olive Branch?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: I would probably say so. It's going to be cool. We're going to plan on taking the trophy, I'm going to the Christmas parade and be the grand marshal December 3rd. It'll be a good homecoming for sure. Got a lot of people back there that are really supportive of what we're doing. The whole school system, just everybody down there, it's really cool to have a community behind you like that.

Q. You were in the top 5 in points I think the whole season but went to first in the middle of the year and stayed there. Was there kind of a momentum shift after that happened, after you got to first?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: We look at it as one whole year. We got the lead a couple times, lost it, got it a couple times. But the last time we got it we were bound and determined not to give it back. We wanted to seal it up before coming to Homestead. We did the best job we could, and it was just the whole year, just the total team effort, just really working, not making mistakes on pit road, not making mistakes as a driver and as a crew chief. I think at the end of the year, we really limited our mistakes that we made in the first half of the year that gave those points leads back to other people.

So that was the main thing that we focused on.

Q. Carl was in here and regaled us with tales, Jack, of your meetings with Ricky and the group last year. Ricky, from your perspective, what was maybe the one biggest lesson that you took out of that? Mike, did you often feel like the glue that was holding the whole thing together? And Jack, obviously you stuck with Ricky, and at any point did you feel like it might not make it, and what was the biggest lesson you were trying to impart with what you put the group through?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: The one biggest thing I think I learned from everything that Jack has done for me is that he cares about me as a person and really wanted me to succeed. If he didn't care, he wouldn't have put me in the body shop. I think that's one thing I learned from my dad. He was tough on me growing up, but it was always for a reason. Jack has been an awesome team owner. He's done a lot of great things in NASCAR and I'm proud to be a part of this one little thing. He's been doing it a long time. He's got his ways of doing things and you've just got to look at the positives from it, and I think that was one of the biggest things I learned.

JACK ROUSH: We never did fail to take you to the emergency room when you needed stitches, though, right?

Q. We really didn't get a tale, though. Carl came in and told us about the boot camp that you put your drivers through, and you've gone through -- I would say a revolving door of Nationwide guys, but I mean, just looking for that special something, what was it that you saw in Ricky that you just refused to give up that you just insisted on pushing him to the point to see if he had what it took to get to that next level?

JACK ROUSH: Ricky was extraordinarily talented. Every challenge we gave him with the new racetrack or with the new problem with the car, as we changed the car, Ricky was -- he was bright and he was quick, and he was talented in meeting those challenges. But the thing that was always there when you'd reach a situation when it was clear that you could go down this path or that path, and Mike Beam or Mike Kelly or myself or Robby Reiser decided that we were going to go down one of the two paths that was out there, Ricky always went along with it. He never called his dad for support and said they're going too hard on me, he never challenged what we were trying to do, he just went along with the program. That's what a rookie needs to do, he needs to go along with the program of the people that are trying to look after him if they've got his interest in mind, and my group obviously did.

But the other thing was that he was just driven to be competitive to the extent of self-destruction to start with, and it's much easier to temper that and to rationalize that and to deal with it than it is for somebody, and I've had people that could drive the race cars that didn't want it as bad enough, as bad as the people next to them, and then they couldn't realize the ultimate prize. But Ricky wanted it bad. He was raised and raised himself to be a race car driver. This was his opportunity, and he tried to hang onto it too tight to start with so he couldn't realize the success that was there for him. But very quickly we got over that.

Q. We talked about this at mid season when you were in contention: This is the first championship under this new format where the guys who won like Brad, five races, and Carl, eight, but you're the champion with two wins. Can you just kind of talk about just how you feel about being the first champion in this new format, and does it mean as much?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: It means just as much. We race week in and week out with those guys. We gave them a run for their money tonight. I think that's -- ultimately my goal is to go out there and win the Drivers and Owners Championship. We finished third in the Owners Championship. We ran really strong all year, and we beat Carl, we beat Brad, we passed those guys, we raced Kyle Busch. So I think as a race team and my as a driver, I feel like we're just as good as those guys, and I think that racing up there and beating them definitely makes this championship definitely worth it.

Q. Ricky, as far as -- could you talk a little bit about finishing strong? Here you get the championship and you come in second, you almost got the race. Could you talk a little bit about that, please?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Man, this racetrack is one of my favorites. I wish we came here twice at least. Last year was the first year here, had a lot of fun, and this is just my style of racetrack. You can drive it in hard, let it slide up to the wall and get back into the gas and let it really hang out. It reminds me a lot of sprint car racing. Last year we finished fourth, ran really strong, and this year we just came up one spot short and maybe one corner short. But man, it was fun racing those guys. We were sideways, turning right, trying to keep it off the fence, getting into the fence every now and then, and to race up there with Carl, Brad, Denny, Clint Bowyer, Elliott Sadler, those guys, they're some of the best in the business, and to be up there racing with them and Denny, it's fun.

Q. At what point did you know it was yours in the race tonight, and did that at all change your philosophy? What was your philosophy going in and then afterwards when you knew you had secured it?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Yeah, we were going 100 percent there from the start. It's tough to get me to back down any, and I'm not good at riding around. And I'm not sure what lap it was. Mike Kelly came over and told me that we were good to go. We had won the championship. But we stayed focused and I think I drove 110 percent after that, so that was the only thing that really changed.

Q. Ricky and Mike, in a lot of championship seasons there's a moment or a time that's a watershed moment or a turning point. Was there anything like that where you felt either a direction that gave you confidence or a turnaround that happened during the course of the year that sort of gave you the boost toward the title?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: I can think of two. Early in the year when we led laps at Bristol, ran up there with Kyle, and I was kind of playing around with him the whole time talking to Kyle afterwards, he was like, man, you had the best car, we made a mistake on fuel mileage and we made a mistake as a race team getting lined up, and we got caught two laps down. I think we rallied together. We worked on our fuel mileage with Ford, and everybody at Roush-Fenway, Roush Yates worked on our fuel mileage and kind of got a direction there and that really helped us, and then Indy when we led 190 laps and we came up a couple spots short, that was pretty tough for us, but we were bound and determined to win some more races and really run up front and dig hard.

Mike was the one that kind of rallied everybody together and kept everybody digging.

MIKE KELLY: Yeah, I kind of agree with him. Early in the year we made a few mistakes and left a lot of points on the table, a lot more than we'd ever thought, and I really feel like if we would have been a little smarter, a little better, earlier in the year we would have been right in the middle of that Owners Championship and that was our goal from the beginning. But the thing that meant a lot to me is we sat down in January and we circled a bunch of dates on the calendar for Ricky's experience level on the road course races. We kind of had a goal. We said we'd have to be 25 points in the lead coming into the last two-road-course race swing knowing that Elliott had a lot of experience and Ricky had never been to Watkins Glen. And we knew we'd take our lumps there, but if we could good get out of there we didn't care if it was a one-point lead or a two-point lead we could tell ourselves we came out of there with a lead and it was ours to hold onto. The last ten races of the year really laid into Ricky's schedule, a bunch of short tracks thrown in there with some couple mile-and-a-halfs that the cars have been good on. When we made it through the two road course races, and I don't know if it was six, seven, eight points or something, we came out of there with a lead, and I remember looking at him on a plane, and I told him, picture we came in here five points behind and we actually came out six points ahead and we'll look at it that way instead of saying that we lost ten today and we got the guys rallied back at the shop and said we've only got to turn left from here on in, and Ricky can do that as good as anybody. Lack of experience or not, he's as talented as anybody I've ever seen behind the wheel.

Q. When people like me do predictions at the start of the year maybe didn't even have you in the top 5, did you think we were -- we didn't know how good you were, or were you like, man, I don't know what this season holds? And did you use it as motivation at all?

RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: We definitely used that as motivation. We felt like at the end of last year Mike Kelly and I were sitting down at the banquet watching Brad get the trophy. We told each other right there as strong as we were running at the end of the year, running in the top 5 with the Cup guys, we were going for that championship, and that was before they ever changed the points system.

You know, obviously they changed the points system, and we still weren't in sight to do that from the media's perspective. But we felt like as a race team we could do that. I felt like as a driver I was just as good as anybody else out there, and if we put everything together then we knew we had a shot at this championship.

But it was just fine. Y'all have been doing this a long time, and I'm just getting started, so it was good to come out here and get this championship.

THE MODERATOR: Ricky, Jack and Mike Kelly, congratulations on this championship. As I mentioned, Jack, a double championship for Roush-Fenway, and Ricky, certainly you're going to be a great champion for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. I have a real good feeling about that. Congratulations, and Jack, good luck tomorrow, as well.