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Stenhouse enjoying perks of being a champion

November 22, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- The respect of drivers and sharing moment with mentor won't be forgotten

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has no idea what his racing future holds, but he's certain of one thing -- his first NASCAR national series championship, the 2011 Nationwide Series title for which he was feted Monday evening at the grand ballroom of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, is one for the ages.

"I think I realize more and more what the Nationwide championship means, each minute that goes by," Stenhouse, 24, said on Monday morning, after his achievement had sunk in for a little more than 36 hours. "I was at [Homestead-Miami Speedway] all day Sunday and a lot of the fans coming up and congratulating me, other race car drivers, other crew chiefs -- that's when it really started to sink in.

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Matt Yocum spends some time with newly crowned Nationwide champ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and finds out how it feels to be the king.

"Obviously I knew we'd won the championship, because I had the trophy. But walking through the garage and people noticing me and paying attention to what we were doing in the Nationwide Series was really cool."

But maybe not as much as participating in a Sunday midnight photo shoot at the track, with Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart and Camping World Truck Series titlist Austin Dillon, who at 21 with Stenhouse provides a great bookend for youth alongside Stewart, 40, the three-time Cup champion.

"Tony was pretty proud of us," Stenhouse said of the man who formerly employed him to drive short-track, open-wheel cars and who had recommended to Nationwide champion owner Jack Roush he give Stenhouse a shot. "And that meant a lot to me."

Sharing a championship weekend with his mentor was a can't-miss proposition for Stenhouse, who became Roush Fenway Racing's third series champion, along with Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Edwards tied Stewart for the Cup Series championship but lost on a tiebreaker.

"It was cool," Stenhouse said. "Either way, it was going to work out really good for myself. Obviously, I've got a really good relationship with Tony, on that side of it, but if Carl would have won, we've got a great teammate there and it would have been special both ways.

"But I was talking to Tony while we were taking our pictures and he said -- and you've got to remember, I won a lot of races when I raced for him, but we crashed some, too -- 'watching you win that [championship] really makes it feel like it's finally paid off and everything worked out the way it should.'

"And it was cool to hear him say that."

For the third consecutive season, NASCAR celebrated its Camping World and Nationwide series champions and award winners in a combined banquet. And a packed house reveled in a celebration of family, history and -- in the case of both junior series' champions -- youth.

But Stenhouse's championship was also a celebration of perseverance and triumph over adversity. In his 2010 Nationwide rookie of the year season, Stenhouse was benched by Roush after crashing too much -- making his 2011 championship a marvelous rebound.

And Monday evening that fact wasn't lost on Dillon, who a year ago won the Truck Series crown before sharing this year's championship stage with Stenhouse.

"Ricky Stenhouse had a lot of hard times," Dillon said. "And it's so cool to me, how hard he worked and he's another great person that's in the future of this sport. Jack Roush stuck with him, but Ricky worked hard, too and he proved that he could go out there and run hard, each and every week.

"Obviously I knew we'd won the championship, because I had the trophy. But walking through the garage and people noticing me and paying attention to what we were doing in the Nationwide Series was really cool."

--RICKY STENHOUSE JR.

"He wasn't going to back down from nobody and it was cool to see what he done in Iowa... He [deserves] all the praise he gets and I hope everybody knows how great of a driver he is and it's going to be cool to see what he does."

Stenhouse won both 2011 Iowa races but undoubtedly the one Dillon was referring to was in August, when Stenhouse blew up coming to the checkered flag, then swerved in front of Edwards so his teammate would smash him across the finish line, in first.

But it was another moment that Stenhouse cited as the key to his championship season.

"As far as team building, it was when we ran out of gas at Bristol -- we had low fuel mileage there [in March]," Stenhouse said. "We took a winning car and finished 14th, two laps down with it. We were the only car that could have ran with [winner] Kyle Busch the whole race.

"And coming back to the shop and really putting our heads down and grinding it out, and everybody standing behind us, I think is where we got motivation to keep going -- that we really had a shot to win this -- because we were running up front, with Kyle Busch at Bristol and that's tough to do.

"Then we ran out of fuel at Richmond, where we were running second and finished [21st]. But my team rallied back and moved on, forgot about Richmond and the next weekend we ran top-[10] -- I don't even remember where it was. But that made us say 'this team is made to do this.'

"That's what championship teams are made of and it was just a special year."

Roush has already said, despite a lot of sponsorship uncertainty, Stenhouse has a ride for 2012. Depending on where the sponsorship falls for Stenhouse and his RFR teammate Trevor Bayne, one will drive full-time in the Nationwide Series and the other will race part-time in Nationwide and part-time for the Wood Brothers in Sprint Cup.

But it was proven to Stenhouse that coming around the corner are benefits that his imagination can't even fathom. In accepting Ford's Nationwide Series manufacturers' championship trophy, Ford Motor Company board member Edsel Ford II announced to the packed banquet hall crowd -- but more significantly, to Stenhouse and his crew chief, Mike Kelley in a complete surprise -- that they could have their choice of any Ford vehicle as a prize for winning their first career title for the manufacturer.

Five hours later, Stenhouse couldn't get over the shock of that special prize but said, even though he had no idea what he would ultimately decide, that a Ford GT was high on his wish-list.