As Trevor Bayne felt the elation of signing to drive for Roush Fenway Racing for the remainder of the 2010 season, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. felt the pressure get tighter. Pressure because the 22-year-old Mississippi native has spent as much time worrying about his driving status as was actually driving.
Stenhouse, in his first full Nationwide Series for RFR, expected things to be much different at this point in the year. After making seven starts in 2009, including winning a pole at Iowa, Stenhouse inherited the No. 6 machine while Camping World Truck Series success Colin Braun climbed aboard the No. 16.
The two were set free to take over the NNS just as many other RFR drivers have done before them. For Stenhouse it’s been anything but a happy first season.
He wrecked in the first two races of the season, something that would become a common theme. Another wreck at Charlotte in May led team owner Jack Roush to remove Stenhouse from the car, something that wasn’t surprising as everyone searched for answers.
Watching someone else drive your racecar can do many things to a driver’s psyche. Coming back things led to change as Stenhouse set out to prove the critics wrong. Following Kansas he now sits 17th in points, even though he’s run 26 of 29 events.
In and out of the car, up and down the results sheet, Stenhouse and the No. 6 team may have finally found their rhythm. A sixth place finish in the Kansas Lottery 200 was both much welcomed and need but listening to the young driver afterward it appeared he wanted much, much more.
“It was what we expected coming into the race,” Stenhouse said. “We were really good in practice the other day, really good on old tires and that seemed to be our strong point. Started 18th, didn’t qualify as well as we wanted to but overall were happy with where we started, drove into the top 10. I think we were running eighth and we just kept working on it all day.”
The car came home in one piece. The driver completed all 200 laps, always the main goal entering a race weekend. From there it’s about learning and through a season that has seen many highs and lows for this team, they’ve stuck together and under Roush’s watchful, dedicated and faithful eye is headed toward ending the season on a positive note.
There’s just one thing that Stenhouse was having a problem on Saturday: “Restarts killed us when we were on the bottom. We’d lose some spots and have to gain them back … That last restart I was fifth – the caution came out and I tried to give Martin Truex Jr. fifth because I wanted to restart sixth – but NASCAR told us to restart fifth so that kinda got us messed up.
“I feel like we could have finished fourth or fifth if we restarted six but we came home sixth and it was a pretty good day for us.”
Highlights of Stenhouse’s day including leading during a round of green flag pit stops. Confidence really soared for Stenhouse the more he ran up front and especially at times when he was able to race and pass Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch. Stenhouse said the team needed a momentum boast such as that.
The performance, along with a non-stellar day by fellow rookie Brian Scott, put Stenhouse in command of Rookie of the Year honors. Stenhouse entered Kansas one point behind Scott, but with five points for leading and a sixth place finish it was enough to over take Scott who finished 21st.
Winning the award would make the season, good and bad, well worth it.
“It’d be awesome,” said Stenhouse. “For one I don’t think Jack [Roush] has ever lost it when he’s ran for it so little bit of pressure there. I’ve never really ran for points and I think that’s what I’m learning right now. I never ran a series all the way through to learn how to race for points. The closest thing I got to was USAC in 2007 but I missed the first five races.”
Stenhouse continued with, “If we could win it, it would probably be the biggest accomplishment of my career so we’re fighting hard for it, the whole team.”
Fighting hard for ROY isn’t the only thing this team has their eye on. With six races remaining in the season Stenhouse can continue to improve on his stats of two top fives and six top 10s in hopes of climbing in the standings.
Either way it’s been quite a memorable year for Stenhouse and one that he won’t quickly forget. Running up front is what he’s expected to do at RFR and getting a taste of it Saturday at Kansas is just the tip of the iceberg for a driver that has the talent and determination to be a consistent contender.
The better the team performs the less pressure Stenhouse might feel.