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Filling in for Bayne, Stenhouse Jr. to start ninth in Cup debut

May 27, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Filling in for Bayne, Stenhouse Jr. to start ninth in Cup debut at Charlotte

CONCORD, N.C. -- Less than a week ago, driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was just another name amongst many up-and-comers trying to separate themselves from each other in the Nationwide Series.

A whole lot happened during the course of five days from last Sunday through Thursday to change that. First, Stenhouse became the first non-Sprint Cup regular to win a Nationwide event this season when he captured the John Deere Dealers 250 at Iowa Speedway last Sunday. Then, after hearing earlier that it might be a possibility, he got word for certain that he would make his Cup debut in this Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, subbing for good buddy Trevor Bayne.

"I can't wait to get into the race Sunday and make as many laps as we can. It's a long race. I've got a lot to learn."

--RICKY STENHOUSE JR.

There was a catch, of course. Despite the fact that Bayne won the season-opening Daytona 500 in the No. 21 Ford fielded by Wood Brothers Racing, the car was not locked into this Sunday's race. It's a part-time operation, and Bayne hadn't raced since being sidelined for a still-unidentified illness in late April.

So if Stenhouse wanted to make his debut in one of NASCAR's crown jewel races, he would have to make it happen in qualifying. Going out last amongst the 48 drivers making qualifying runs Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Stenhouse did just that by turning a lap of 190.752 mph that ranked, remarkably, ninth-fastest.

"Man, I really don't ever get nervous -- but I got nervous there," Stenhouse said. "But I'd rather go out last and know no one can put us out.

"We were fast in practice. Whether I could put it all together for qualifying was maybe going to be a different story. We were able to, which was good. I didn't imagine we would turn a lap that fast."

Bayne, on the other hand, never seemed lacking in confidence that his close friend could get it done. He also has had to tell Stenhouse to relax about getting to make his Cup debut in the driver's seat that really belongs to Bayne, who will return to the car next month at Michigan.

"Ricky is awesome and has been sensitive to the fact of where he is," Bayne said. "He's been like, 'Man, I hate the circumstances. I've always wanted to run my first Cup race, but I hate that I have to do it because you're out of the car.' He is an awesome kid and I'm pumped for him. I texted him [Wednesday] and told him to own this thing because he deserves it. I think he's going to do a great job."

Stenhouse said it meant a great deal to him to hear Bayne's continuing encouragement. And for the record, they're both kids. Bayne is only 20; Stenhouse 23.

"It's definitely not the way I wanted to get my first Cup start -- but you know, you've got to take what God lays out for you," Stenhouse said. "It's crazy how everything happens."

It sure is. A year ago about this time, Stenhouse had just endured a horrific weekend at Iowa during which he wrecked a total of three Roush Fenway Racing Nationwide cars. He wasn't thinking about making his Cup debut then.

"I didn't know if I was going to make many more Nationwide starts, to be honest with you," he said.

But he rallied in the last 19 Nationwide races last season to earn rookie of the year honors in that series. This year he has been running up front most of the season in the No. 6 Ford he drives for Roush Fenway. He heads into this Saturday's event at Charlotte third in the Nationwide standings behind only leader Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson -- and only eight points out of first.

He's facing a long weekend, with the possibility of running a total of 900 miles or more if he completes all the laps both in Saturday's Top Gear 300 and Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 (and depending on if there are any green-white-checkered finishes thrown in).

"It's our longest Nationwide race and longest Cup race of the year, so I know it's going to be tough. But I've been going to bed early all week and making sure I'm eating good and drinking a lot of water," Stenhouse said. "Our trainer at the shop has been doing a good job of making sure I've been working out every week, so hopefully that'll pay off. If not, I'm sure I'll be working out even more.

"I can't wait to get into the race Sunday and make as many laps as we can. It's a long race. I've got a lot to learn. Hopefully we'll have a good practice Saturday and a good Nationwide race and get into Sunday and go from there."