Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
A year can make all the difference, especially when it comes to the NASCAR Nationwide Series career of recently-crowned series champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
“We felt like at the end of last year (crew chief) Mike Kelly and I were sitting down at the banquet watching Brad (Keselowski) get the trophy,” Stenhouse said. “We told each other right there as strong as we were running at the end of the year -- running in the top-five with the Cup guys, we were going for that championship, and that was before they ever changed the points system.”
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.
Sure, Stenhouse did recover to claim Rookie of the Year honors a year ago, but that came after a tumultuous 2010 season that saw the young driver wrecking race cars, failing to finish races. Car owner Jack Roush benched him for several events around mid-season and put Stenhouse to work in the body shop, repairing cars that he had wrecked.
“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,” Roush said. “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.”
Before rising onto the national stock car racing stage by climbing into a Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide Series entry, Stenhouse drove a sprint car for Tony Stewart, who just happened to claim a NASCAR championship trophy of his own last weekend as Sprint Cup Series champion.
It was Stewart who suggested to Roush that Stenhouse be put in a Nationwide car. Throughout Stenhouse’s rookie campaign of 2010, the idea of putting Stenhouse in a Nationwide car didn’t look like such a good idea.
Fast forward a year later, though, and Stenhouse is the 2011 Nationwide Series champion as a result of a two-win season that also included 16 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes in 34 races. Stewart’s suggestion to Roush to put Stenhouse in one of his Nationwide entries paid off after all.
Stenhouse all but locked-up his first NASCAR national level driver title in the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway when his closest championship competitor, Elliott Sadler, got involved in an on-track incident with Jason Leffler.
As a result of Sadler’s misfortune, Stenhouse headed into the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead- Miami Speedway with a 41-point lead over Sadler, nearly a race’s worth of points. Stenhouse sealed the deal for the champion’s trophy at Homestead by finishing second to Brad Keselowski.
“We got the lead a couple of times (during the season), lost it, got it back a couple times,” Stenhouse said. “But the last time we got it, we were bound and determined to not 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 give those points leads back to other people.”
Even with a newly-received champion’s trophy, there are still questions surrounding Stenhouse’s 2012 racing docket. One thing is for sure, though, Roush seems pretty determined to make sure his newest champion has a ride for next year, despite complications in finding sufficient sponsorship backing for both his Nationwide and Sprint Cup series programs.
RFR has already announced cutbacks for 2012. The organization has scaled back from three full- time Nationwide entries to one full-time and one part-time team next year and possibly will eliminat one of its four Sprint Cup Series entries. Even so, Roush has said, repeatedly, since the season ended that Stenhouse has a ride for next year. The new champion will either compete for a second-straight Nationwide Series crown by again competing full-time in the series or will run a schedule that will combine part-time efforts on the Nationwide and Sprint Cup circuits, with the Sprint Cup ride being the No. 21 of Wood Brothers Racing.
While the path of his immediate racing future is still somewhat for certain, one thing is for sure, the young rookie Stenhouse of 2010 has come a long way in a short time. He now goes by the title of “Champion”.