JOHNSTON, Iowa – Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is perfectly happy biding his time in the NASCAR Nationwide series in 2012.
Stenhouse knows Roush Fenway Racing is invested in his future — one that looks stronger than ever after a stellar start to the season.
Stenhouse, the 2011 Nationwide points champion, told team owner Jack Roush in the offseason that another year in the series right below Sprint Cup would be the best thing for his long-term prospects.
It's been the right plan so far. The 24-year-old Stenhouse is five points clear of Elliott Sadler in the points lead heading into this week's race at Darlington.
"I feel comfortable about where I am at Roush Fenway Racing. I wasn't worried that if I didn't get to Cup that I was going to be left behind or anything like that. Jack's been patient with me and been supportive, so I had that behind me," Stenhouse said Wednesday during a promotional tour of metro Des Moines ahead of the May 20 Nationwide race at Iowa Speedway. "I felt like there was a lot that I could learn still in Nationwide."
It never seems that way at the short oval in Iowa, the site of Stenhouse's first two career wins.
Stenhouse earned his first career pole at Iowa in 2009. He then picked up his first career victory there last May, outdueling teammate Carl Edwards and Cup regular Brad Keselowski to snap a winless streak by Nationwide regulars that stretched past a year. He won again at Iowa in August.
"After the last couple of years running out at Iowa Speedway and, especially after last year having the success we've had there, I'm definitely excited to get back," Stenhouse said.
It was that victory last August that ensured Iowa's burgeoning racing fan base wouldn't forget Stenhouse either.
It was a contentious run from the start, with Stenhouse annoying his more experienced teammate with what Edwards thought was overaggressive driving. Contact initiated by Stenhouse sent tempers flaring, and owner Jack Roush had to grab the radio and calm them down.
It worked, but sage advice couldn't stop Stenhouse's engine from blowing up on the last lap with Edwards on his rear fender. Stenhouse's No. 6 car spun and Edwards, blinded by the smoke, pushed it across the finish line first.
It was one of the more dramatic finishes in recent NASCAR history, even though it was hardly the kind of 1-2 finish Roush had hoped for.
"It was crazy. It was one of those races that I'll never forget. You don't want them to end that way. It was exciting for the fans, exciting for everyone at home. Kind of killed me — I wasn't sure if we were going to win or not," Stenhouse said. "It was tough on Jack's pocketbook as well, because finishing first and second with two destroyed race cars and a blown motor is not profitable."
It's been tough for Roush to stay mad at Stenhouse with the way he's been running.
In eight Nationwide races, Stenhouse has a pair of wins at Las Vegas and Texas and a series-high six top-5 finishes. Though he's run just once in Sprint Cup, he said Wednesday he's confident that more opportunities to race at the sport's highest level will come this season.
Stenhouse even said that Roush told him at Texas he's holding a Cup spot for the No. 6 provided he can land sponsorship for it. For now, Stenhouse is content on chasing another Nationwide championship while absorbing all the lessons he can before making the leap to Cup fulltime.
It's not a move Stenhouse wants to make too soon.
"Looking at other guys that might have gone up a little too early and struggled a little bit and took a while to get going — I didn't want to fall in that category," Stenhouse said.