Of all the drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this year, you can convincingly argue that no one has a harder act to follow than Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who will replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion.
After all, Kenseth has been rock steady at RFR since defeating close friend Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 2000 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year Honors. Three years later, Kenseth gave team owner Jack Roush his first of so far just two series championships, and then went on to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup in eight of nine seasons. And, oh yeah, Kenseth won two Daytona 500s along the way.
So Stenhouse clearly has big shoes to fill now that Kenseth has moved on to Joe Gibbs Racing.
The good news is that the 25-year-old native of Olive Branch, Miss., ought to be up to the task. Stenhouse has shown remarkable growth since a dodgy 2010 season, when Roush benched him briefly after wrecking too many cars in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
Stenhouse has won the last two Nationwide championships, and in the process earned the trust of his team owner and the faith of his sponsors that he can succeed on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
Team founder and car owner Jack Roush was duly impressed by what Stenhouse and crew chief Mike Kelley were able to do in the Nationwide Series over the last two seasons. In that period, Stenhouse won eight races and posted 35 top-five and 52 top-10 finishes in addition to the two titles.
“It's hard to put together a second championship on the heels of a first, especially when it's your first and your second one you're dealing with, and I've never seen it done before,” said Roush. “I guess it's been done, but certainly not by my crowd, and Ricky and Mike really deserve my thanks and my credit for the great job they did.”
With the No. 17 Cup team this season, Stenhouse will be paired with crew chief Scott Graves, who was formerly the engineer on Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Sprint Cup car. Graves and Stenhouse worked together in 2012 during the four Cup starts Stenhouse made, the best of which resulted in a 12th-place finish at Dover in the fall.
Stenhouse knows the move to Cup won’t be easy, especially at first.
“Just because we've had success in the Nationwide Series doesn't mean that I'm going to jump in and automatically have success,” he said. “I'm looking forward to learning a lot, building a relationship with a new crew. I've been with my guys for three years now, and that's going to be tough to part ways, but (I want to) build that relationship back up with a new team that's hopefully as motivated as I am.”
And no one’s harder on Stenhouse than the driver himself.
“The pressure is still on,” he said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I don't feel like I ever get any pressure from outside. I put it all on myself. I expect to go out and win every week. Our team expects to win every week. That's not going to happen every week, but you've got to show up to the racetrack with high expectations and high goals.”
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.