It’s a great time to be Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and it’s a challenging time, as well.
The 24-year-old native of Olive Branch, Miss., is coming off a championship season in 2011, when he won the NASCAR Nationwide Series title in convincing fashion, besting Elliott Sadler by nearly one full race in points.
You would think that would put Stenhouse in a good spot for 2012, and you’d be mostly correct. Stenhouse will return behind the wheel of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing NNS Ford Mustang in an attempt to defend his series title this year. He’ll also pilot the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford Fusion NASCAR Sprint Cup car in the Daytona 500 and, if all goes according to plan, he’ll move to Cup full time in 2013.
The Daytona 500 is something Stenhouse is excited about and understandably so.
“That’s going to be amazing,” said Stenhouse. “That’s Jack’s go-to car. That’s always been his number. That’s been it. Mark Martin won a lot of races in it. To go there and run the 6 car is going to be huge. It’s a cool opportunity Jack Roush wanted to give me for winning the championship and what Ford wanted to do. It’s going to be one to remember, for sure.”
In the Nationwide Series, Stenhouse said there is room for improvement, even after his title run in 2011.
“I think you’ve got to back it up and go for another one,” he said. “I really feel like with the cars that we have and the team that we have, we’re in position to do that. We only won two races last year and I feel like we gave a few away. We were leading late in some and ended up second. If we can win six to 10 races and go for that championship and win it again, that would be a better season, obviously, than what we had (in 2011) and would kind of step the game up a little bit.”
But there is the thorny issue of sponsorship. Over the offseason, Roush Fenway dialed back both its Cup and Nationwide programs because of a lack of funding, and Stenhouse is hoping that doesn’t hold him back this year.
One of the effects of the cutbacks is that about 125 employees were let go at Roush Fenway, with the result being that the crews were realigned, in some cases substantially. Stenhouse’s title winning team was one of those that saw a lot of movement over the winter.
“I would much rather have the same group of guys that we had,” said Stenhouse, “but under the circumstances, and the things that went on at Roush Fenway over the offseason, some of our guys are on Carl’s (Edwards) Cup car and some are on Greg’s (Biffle) Cup car. The good thing is, I’m confident in the guys that replaced them and filled in. They’ve been working hard this offseason.”
Still, there will be a period of adjustment for all involved with the new-look team.
“It’s kind of different around the shop, just because we haven’t been to the racetrack yet together, and hang out in the trailer and get that (team chemistry) going,” said Stenhouse. “But I think once the season starts, everything’s going to be just fine. We’ve got some good guys who are really dedicated and are going to work hard for us this season.”
As for sponsorship, “That part’s kind of tough,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve got Kellogg’s and Rice Krispies and Pop Tarts on the Nationwide car at Daytona. They’ve got a few other things working. Obviously, we’d rather have that one anchor sponsor like Greg Biffle and 3M, just to kind of build my career with. We’re still looking for that right now. We’ve got a couple of races that we think we’ve got sold, but the majority of them are still open.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.