Ricky Stenhouse Jr. always knew his future was with Roush Fenway Racing — at least since moving to stock cars.
The defending Nationwide Series champion even believed he would be driver No. 4 in the RFR Sprint Cup stable in 2013.
But imagine the 24-year-old’s surprise when Stenhouse discovered he’d be replacing veteran Matt Kenseth, a former Cup champion and the driver many believe to be the cornerstone of Roush Fenway Racing.
For Stenhouse or any other race car driver, it would be difficult driving shoes to fill.
Yet Stenhouse learned two years ago not to take opened doors for granted. With tough love, team owner Jack Roush taught Stenhouse how painful it can be watching the action from the sidelines. After crashing out in five of the first 12 races his rookie year and not qualifying for the 13th event, Stenhouse was put on time out by Roush.
The experience taught Stenhouse valuable lessons including humility. As he rode with his parents from their home in Olive Branch, Miss., to Kentucky Speedway, Stenhouse reminded himself to stay focused on what lies ahead.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Stenhouse said. “I was kind of shocked when I got the news. I thought for sure we would be a fourth car and definitely didn’t see Matt going anywhere, but you just have to take advantage of every situation you’re in. We have to go into next year ready to go and learn as much as we can and try to finish this year off on a strong note.
“We came in here this year wanting to win the 2012 Nationwide Series championship. So we have to make sure that we stay focused on that. I say this week will probably be the toughest week — getting all the questions about next year — to stay focused on this race. But coming into Kentucky, we’ve run very strong here. I won my first stock car race here in ARCA in 2008. And we’ve had a strong run here in the Nationwide car. It is a race track that I think we can get the ball back rolling.”
Stenhouse hasn’t been nearly as consistent as he was last year. Still, halfway into the schedule, he’s already posted three victories, one more than his total for last year when he won the title. He’s improved his average qualifying effort to 6.1. But three of his past four finishes have been 25th or worse.
But Stenhouse believes Tuesday’s announcement will offer renewed “confidence and more pep in our step.”
“The team is pumped about it and excited for me,” Stenhouse said. “I am excited about it. It puts a lot of confidence in me that Jack Roush and everyone at Roush Fenway believes in me to go up there and run that Cup car next year. I think it gives us a little bit extra edge going into the rest of the season and to finish it off on a strong note. I think that is the only way we need to go out, with a championship. We are going to work really, really hard for it.”
Stenhouse already has earned the respect of many of his fellow drivers in the Cup Series, including former Nationwide Series champions Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. Keselowski, who won the Nationwide title the year before Stenhouse, believes that winning a championship in one of NASCAR’s top three tours should guarantee a racer a shot at Cup.
“That’s obviously a glowing endorsement that you’re ready to enter the Sprint Cup Series,” Keselowski said. “I just think that speaks for itself. So you know he deserves the credit for that and I think that shows right there that he’s ready for the opportunity. I know he ran a couple Cup races and he’s had some respectable results. So, you know, I guess I go off of that and say yes.”
In his Cup debut with the Wood Brothers last season in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stenhouse qualified ninth and finished 11th in NASCAR’s longest race of the year.
Harvick agrees the Cup Series is “where he belongs.”
“Ricky is a great kid,” Harvick said. “He is just a hardcore racer that can drive the car sideways under any condition and always is aggressive in going forward.
“I am a huge Stenhouse fan and I am sure that weighed into some of the decision. I’m sure there was going to be a lot of pressure from a lot of different angles if he wasn’t in a Cup car next year. I think he wound up getting what he deserves.”
Stenhouse says he “never entertained any offer” from teams others than RFR. While there were rumors that he might align with his former USAC car owner Tony Stewart, Stenhouse insists he has been committed to Roush.
“Jack Roush has been a great supporter," he said, "and for somebody to take me out of the car and put me back in and really believe in me, I felt like I owed it to them to stay here and I feel at home here.”
Although arrangements have not been made for Stenhouse’s next Cup start, he anticipates sitting down with the RFR competition department to map out his schedule. Stenhouse would like to run at Dover “based on sponsorship” and at Martinsville Speedway because he’s never raced there.
Considering what happened in 2007, the last time Roush replaced a beloved veteran with a rookie when David Ragan attempted to fill the seat vacated by Mark Martin, Stenhouse is hoping the results are better this time around. But Stenhouse has been under the spotlight before — the first time Roush gave him a shot in the Nationwide Series. Certainly, the level of competition in the Cup series is exceptionally stronger, but it’s nothing Stenhouse can’t handle.
“The expectations are high anyway,” Stenhouse said. “Being with an organization like Roush Fenway Racing, who have been winning for 25 years, I don’t think a number really decides how much pressure there is. I put a lot of pressure on myself each week, and being in equipment that can win and run up front, there is going to be a lot of pressure. I think I am going to put a lot of pressure on myself more than anybody.”
GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNING
Penske Racing is closing in on its engine plans for 2013.
With the team moving from Dodge to Ford next year, team owner Roger Penske has the option to run his own engines or become a customer or partner of Roush Yates Engines.
Keselowski has discussed the possibilities with his boss and says, “I think there’s a direction, maybe, not a decision — how about that? What I can tell you — and this is the only thing I can tell you — is that Penske Engines and its employees will continue to be employed.”
If Dodge chooses to stay in NASCAR, it likely will build engines out of Penske’s existing engine shop in Concord, N.C. A proposal has been made to retain the employees of that shop for the new phase of Dodge engineering.
While Keselowski continues to drive for Dodge, he’s not sure of the manufacturer’s intentions beyond this year.
“I don’t think they know what’s going on,” Keselowski said. “I don’t know Sergio (Marchionne, CEO of Fiat S.p.A., Chairman and CEO of Chrysler Group LLC). I’ve never met him. I’ve spent a lot of time around Ralph (Gilles, vice president product design Chrysler LLC, CEO SRT & SRT Motorsport) and I know that Ralph and his SRT team want to stay in the sport. I think that’s their desire. I don’t think it’s their decision.”
Sources expect Dodge to have an announcement in the next month regarding its engine plans for next year with a team roster to follow. Stay tuned.
2: Wins for James Buescher at Kentucky Speedway — one Truck, one ARCA (the Truck win came Thursday night).
117: The track temperature for the start time of the UNOH 225.
119: Laps led by Buescher on Thursday night.
10: Finishing position for Kyle Larson in his NASCAR Truck debut.
Nelson Piquet Jr., who got his first Nationwide Series win last week at Road America and qualified second for the UNOH 225: “The whole team is pumped up. You know a lot of people complain about the bumps here and I think I have an advantage with my F1 experience of running on a lot of bumpy tracks. So it may be awkward for some of the drivers, but I feel right at home on a track with this much character.”
Piquet wasn’t prepared for the collateral damage that occurred when Todd Bodine collected Justin Lofton and took out Piquet’s No. 30 truck in the process. Piquet finished 29th and was sidelined after just 68 laps.