Getting wrecked in the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Raceway in February must have put a huge burr under Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s saddle. How else can the reigning series champion’s recent run be described?
Since his 19th-place finish at Daytona, Stenhouse has posted two victories, six top-five and seven top-10 finishes in the next seven races, a period in which his average finish has been a stunning 2.86.
A third-place finish last week at Talladega Superspeedway moved Stenhouse to the top of the points standings for the first time this season. And there is no question that the 24-year-old Mississippi native has his sights squarely on becoming the first repeat series champion since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05.
Stenhouse is pleased where his Roush Fenway Racing team is at right now.
“I think right now our team is doing everything we need to do,” he said. “I feel like they have given me a fast enough race car to win every race. I think if you look back, we had a shot at Daytona and I think that is our only finish outside of the top-10 as of right now. We had that crash coming off Turn 4 coming for the win. Other than that, we have been right there at the front and only one finish outside of the top-five other than Daytona.”
Team founder and co-owner Jack Roush likes the way his young driver is handling his business right now.
“We stepped off from having really good cars with Carl (Edwards) and Ricky last year, where he won the championship and Carl won a bunch of races, and we've got better cars this year with Ford's help,” said Roush. “Ricky has matured much faster than most people thought he would and could, much to the chagrin of some of his competitors, but he's in championship form and he's highly motivated. He's raised himself for this opportunity and he's not going to waste it.”
There’s a lot at stake. Roush is trying to resurrect his fourth Cup car, which was parked this year for lack of sponsorship dollars. When it comes back, it appears Stenhouse will be the pilot.
So far Stenhouse has been patient.
“Talking to Jack (Roush) about the way things are, I felt like it would be more beneficial for us to stay in Nationwide (this season) and learn some more and win some more races and figure things out and work better as a team. It was what I wanted to do. I think that made it a little easier. It isn’t like I wanted to go Cup racing and they told me I was running Nationwide. That would have been tough to handle. With it being something I wanted to do, I really appreciate Jack letting me do it.”
For now, though, the target is a second consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series title.
“Definitely winning the championship last year built our confidence,” said Stenhouse. “I feel like every weekend we have a shot to win and we go out there to win every week. We have the confidence that we can do that and we have two wins on the season, it is nice to get those early but we want more. We feel like we can win quite a few races this year and I just have confidence in our equipment, our team, and everybody around us.”
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.