Following the opening Cup practice of the weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I spoke with ROTY contender and 2-time Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. regarding his rookie season. The past few weeks, Ricky has turned a corner winning the pole at Atlanta before ripping off back-to-back top ten finishes. There is no doubting this guy’s ability and it’s only a matter of time before his true potential at the Cup level is fully realized.
Talk first about the transition from Nationwide to Cup and the challenges you face as you try to adapt to the Gen-6 car.
The biggest thing is obviously the horsepower. Having the Gen-6 cars being implemented this year at the same time I’m coming in; I thought (that) was a great time because everyone’s still learning. We haven’t really been as fast at Roush-Fenway as a whole as we wanted and we’re trying to figure this car out as a race team. Driving wise, it’s a big difference. There’s a lot more brake that you got to use and you can’t just jump right back into the gas with all that extra horsepower. It’s been a challenge trying to figure that out. One of the biggest things about Cup is that we always practice at the worst time of the day and then race at a completely opposite (time). In Nationwide, you practice early in the morning; the temperatures are a little cooler and then we race at night. With the Cup cars, we practice dead in the middle of the day so that transition from practice to the race is something I’ve been trying to figure out as well. There’s a lot of factors that go into learning these cars and we’re starting to figure it out.
Every driver has their particular style of driving and how they want their cars setup; how do you like your cars to feel?
Yeah, I like mine loose. I hate when our car doesn’t turn. If you listened on our radio, you would find that out. (chuckles) I like my cars to turn…I feel like when the car’s too tight with my driving style of driving (which is) really hard and aggressive, there’s nothing you can do but slow down to get the car to turn. When it’s a little looser, you can still drive it hard and try to get it to tighten up the harder you drive it so I enjoy a loose racecar.
Going into this season, what were your expectations and have you met them?
No, we have not met them. We wanted to be top 15 team in points.I think we can get maybe an 18th, 17th or something before the year’s up. We feel like we should have more top 10’s by now. I would like to be running top 10 consistently by now…we’ve done it the past few weeks but we still got to get that speed consistently every week. We’ve led laps which is a positive; we wanted to lead laps this year at some point but we just haven’t been able to finish the races off like we want to. We’ve been fast at the beginning of some races; had some bad luck when we have been fast but yeah, we definitely want some more top 10’s before the end of the year…we thought we’d have quite a few by now.
The past few weeks, you’ve been doing a lot better. You got that pole and two top 10’s so what’s changed?
Just getting more comfortable. The guys are working really hard and Scott (Graves) and the guys are making really good calls at the end of these races to keep our track position. I’m not the only rookie here; Scott is a new crew chief so he’s learning as well. At the beginning of the year, we had a lot of times at the end of these races where we tried to make these cars better and we would never make them better and we’d still be behind a lot of guys on the restarts. Staying out and keeping our track position has been one of the best things but you still got to have a decent racecar to do that. I think our cars have been getting a little better and I’m getting more comfortable as well.
How close do you think you are to that first win…do you think you might be able to get it before the end of the year?
That would be nice…if we can carry this momentum that we got going to some of these mile and a half race tracks like Charlotte, Kansas, and Texas; I feel like those are going to be our best shots at it. You know, Talladega we were really fast and we led laps there earlier in the year so if we can carry some momentum into those race tracks, keep making our cars better and I keep getting better as a driver; those would be our best shots.
As you try to adapt to these cars, which driver has been the biggest help to you?
The teammates are great help. Obviously, I can look at their data and see what they’re doing and how they’re driving the cars. Kevin Harvick has been another good one that has really reached out and helped me; especially at some of the tracks that I haven’t been to like Sears Point or Infinion…(Sonoma)…yeah, Sonoma or whatever it is. He’s (Harvick) raced with me in Nationwide so he knows my tendencies (in Nationwide) and he knows that they won’t exactly work over here. He’s been a big help as well.
You know, as a rookie, sometimes the veterans pick on you so has anyone given you a hard time this year?
Nah….everybody’s been pretty good. Some of them that I haven’t raced with; they’ll get a little madder than others like if I don’t give them enough room or whatever but everybody’s been pretty good. I haven’t really had any issues.
I asked this to Eric McClure this a few weeks ago and got a pretty funny response (Ricky chuckles) and I’ve asked a couple other drivers it and gotten some interesting answers so I thought I might ask you…what’s the strangest fan encounter you’ve ever had?
Mine hasn’t been too bad or at least from what I can remember. Normally, you’d remember something like that. Umm…I signed a guys forehead once; that was kind of weird because I don’t know why you would want someone’s signature on your forehead. (chuckles) That’s probably been the weirdest thing. It’s always a little different….sometimes they’ll show you pictures of their room and they’ll have pictures all over the place but it takes die-hard fans like that to keep our sport going.
At just 25 years old, Ricky has an incredible future ahead of him. He’s got a solid ride with a top tier organization and he will most likely be a chase contender within the next couple of years. He only has two top 10’s in his rookie season but wasn’t there some other new guy a few years back who in his first full-time season, only finished inside the top 10 twice driving for a top level team just like Ricky? I think he is a Nationwide champion too actually. Oh yeah! He’s that guy we call Brad Keselowski…the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.