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Year in Review: Stenhouse turns NNS upside down

December 28, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Youthful driver earns vindication, confirmation with surprising championship

When the 2011 Nationwide Series season began, the talk in the garage was all about the veterans. The assumption was that someone like Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson or Jason Leffler would take home the championship trophy.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Lots of potential and promise, but light on experience and dealing with the pressure of a championship battle. And after a 2010 season in which he lost his ride for four races because of a slew of crashes, a few people wondered if Stenhouse -- with limited seat time in stock cars -- wasn't perhaps in over his head.

2011 statistics

Wins2
Top-fives16
Top-10s26
Poles3
DNFs2
Laps Led541
Avg. Start7.2
Avg. Finish8.8

So even though expectations may have been low outside of Roush Fenway Racing, that wasn't the case for Stenhouse, crew chief Mike Kelley and the No. 6 Ford team. They had a clear goal: to prove they were equal to or better than the well-known names.

"We had tough times last year and it was documented very well," Kelley said. "Anyone could have walked away. Jack could have turned his back on him, Ford could have and our guys could have. There were a lot of tough days and grim nights back at the shop. Nobody did though. I am so proud of my guys and Jack and Ford for sticking behind Ricky and seeing it through.

"During the offseason, we really put our heads down. We weren't picked to be the favorite and that is probably what helped us the most. We were kind of overshadowed by the Elliott Sadlers and the [Justin] Allgaiers and Sorensons, and that kind of gave us a fight and desire back at the shop to make sure we came out strong."

Stenhouse overcame a few early season struggles to post two wins, 16 top-five finishes and 26 top-10s, grabbing the points lead for good after Indianapolis and eventually stringing together nine consecutive finishes of ninth or better to sew up the title.

Things to smile about

Stenhouse realized early that he had the equipment -- and the mind-set -- to compete at the front of the field week in and week out. And once he felt comfortable in that role, Stenhouse began to relish it.

"We ran really strong all year," Stenhouse said. "We beat Carl [Edwards], we beat Brad [Keselowski], we passed those guys and raced Kyle Busch. I think as a race team and me as a driver, I felt like we are just as good as those guys. I think that racing up there and beating them definitely makes this championship worth it."

In Kelley's opinion, building a cushion in the points heading into a pair of road-course events was critical, especially after Stenhouse suffered engine problems at Montreal.

"We knew we'd take our lumps there, but if we could get out of there -- we didn't care if it was a one-point lead or a two-point lead -- we would tell ourselves on the way home that we came out of there with the lead and now it was ours to hold on to the last 10 races of the year," Kelley said.

Kelley was right on the money, as Stenhouse was virtually unstoppable from Atlanta until the season finale at Homestead.

Reasons to frown

Restrictor-plate races -- along with Stenhouse's relative inexperience at road-course racing -- presented some of the few stumbling blocks to his title trek. Stenhouse got tagged by teammate Trevor Bayne while racing in a pack midway through the April event at Talladega, resulting in a 38th-place finish.

And he wound up 27th at Daytona in July when he got sideways in the tri-oval with five laps remaining. Stenhouse avoided setting off a major mishap but did enough damage to the car to put him well back in the field.

Even concerns about his ability to turn both left and right were somewhat unfounded. Stenhouse wound up eighth at Road America, 15th at Watkins Glen and was running in the top 20 at Montreal when his engine let go with two laps to go.

Looking into the crystal ball

Both crew chief and driver had reasons to savor a satisfying 2011 season before concerning themselves with the defense of their title.

"I heard Carl [Edwards] say the other day that it isn't about the trophy that you get but the journey you take to get there," Kelley said. "I couldn't say that any more for working with Ricky the last 16 or 18 months together. It was a total team effort.

"The cars that we get are second to none out there and the engines are second to none. We never quit. We had bad days at the beginning of the year and we learned as a group on fuel mileage and strategy. I feel like we gave up a couple wins based on that. I am proud of the effort of this team during the hard times. We dug in there and finished off strong."

For Stenhouse, it was not just vindication -- but confirmation.

"Last year, Mike Kelley and I were sitting down at the banquet watching Brad [Keselowski] get the trophy, we told each other right there that as strong as we were running at the end of the year, running up in the top five with the Cup guys, that we were going for that championship," Stenhouse said.

"I felt like as a driver I was just as good as anybody else out there, and if we put everything together, then we knew we had a shot at this championship."