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Stenhouse's ascent reflects the power of patience

August 17, 2011, David Caraviello,

Roush stuck with young driver, and results are evident in this season's title bid

Prior to the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway, crew chief Mike Kelley showed his team a video from a motorcycle circuit awards banquet that carried a simple message -- sometimes, the underdog jumps up and bites the favorite in the behind. Full of triumphant music and motivational messages, it struck the perfect chord for a program that the previous season had wrecked too many race cars, failed to qualify for one race, and twice seen driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. yanked from the seat.

Suddenly, all those misfortunes from a tumultuous 2010 campaign became fuel. Stenhouse was not among those being talked about as a potential championship contender as this year dawned -- and why would he have been, given the previous year's results? But Kelley had seen the small steps forward his driver had made in the final weeks of the previous season, he trusted his Roush Fenway equipment, and he felt his band of underdogs was ready to break through.

"I think everyone's seen something in Ricky that we knew was there."


"I could see it," the crew chief said. "I knew where our cars were, I knew where our motor package was, so for [Stenhouse] to be as close as he was at the end of the year, we went into this offseason legitimately thinking we had a shot at this championship. We liked that during the whole offseason all we heard was Elliott Sadler, Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier, and no one talked about us. Because it kept us under the radar. If we had a mistake or something, we didn't have to dwell on it, because no one said anything. So, yeah. I kind of felt like I knew where he was, I knew where our program was."

And look where it is now, with a pair of race victories and leading the standings by 10 points over Sadler, Sorenson and the others in the middle of a two-race road-course stretch that could prove key in determining the championship. No question, the results turned in by the No. 6 team this season indicate just how much Stenhouse has matured as a driver, and emphasize once again how strong Roush cars can be on the Nationwide circuit. But the sight of this Mississippian atop the standings also reinforces something much more elementary -- that patience occasionally pays off.

Because no one would have blinked an eye had Roush made a change in the driver's seat after one of the many low moments that defined the No. 6 team's 2010 effort. In fact, people almost began to expect it, particularly after Stenhouse was pulled for a pair of races, in favor of Brian Ickler at Kentucky and for Billy Johnson at Watkins Glen. The former U.S. Auto Club standout would have been just another kid with all kinds of potential who was put on a short leash, and cut loose by an organization that didn't want to wait through the development process or pay for too many wrecked race cars. That's the way it happens so often in NASCAR, even a few times at Roush, and the writing seemed as plain as the number painted on Stenhouse's roof.

Even the driver recognized the reality. "I was always worried about that," said Stenhouse, 23. "Everybody at Ford Racing and Jack, they stuck behind me. ... For the guys who grew up racing stock cars and stuff, I can see why they get a little less time, because they've been running asphalt cars and stock cars for a long time. But like myself coming from dirt, I didn't run hardly any pavement. I ran limited races in 2007 in a sprint car. But other than that, I had none."

Whatever the reason, Roush stood firm, and the result is a staggering transformation from neophyte to contender that should stand as a message to the rest of the garage area. No question, there were some trying times, foremost among them an Iowa weekend where Stenhouse went through three cars. This year, though, he won two races at the same speedway.


Through Watkins Glen
2.R. Sorenson806-10
3.E. Sadler792-24
4.A. Almirola746-70
5.J. Allgaier736-80

"I think everyone's seen something in Ricky that we knew was there," Kelley said. "There were a lot of people we talked to after Iowa, and I don't think anybody said, 'Take him out,' or 'Get rid of the kid.' They said, 'You've just got to work through it.' I think that does show something. As a company, we went through some guys pretty [quickly] in '06, '07. A few of them that, you just wonder about."

Stenhouse could have ended up the same way. When Kelley took over as crew chief seven races into last season, he could see his driver's confidence was fragile. So immediately, he set to work to fix it. On the flight to Fort Worth, he told Stenhouse that he wanted him to hold it wide open for the first two laps of Nationwide practice that weekend. "We will send a signal to the garage we're here to race," Kelley told him. Stenhouse was hesitant; the crew chief told him the car would stick. It did, and the No. 6 flashed to the top of the scoring tower. The weekend ended in a crash, but Kelly learned one thing -- his new driver had some speed.

He would eventually learn other things, too, like the fact that Stenhouse prefers to drive his stock car like a sprint car, tugging the wheel slightly to the left in corners, and even uses some of the same terminology he employed during his dirt-track days. "We talk about driving off the left rear," Kelley said. "You go to a short track race and listen to his terminology, you'd think he was working on a car at Eldora." And then there was the head-butting over how hard Stenhouse liked to drive the car, which didn't always work on certain tire compounds, and led to a few Days of Thunder moments when Stenhouse would drive the No. 6 his way, and then the crew chief's way, and the two would compare results.

But so often, it was simply about pounding out sheet metal. Crash at Daytona. Crash at Fontana. Crash at Texas. Crash at Darlington. They weren't all Stenhouse's fault, obviously, but the cumulative damage added up nonetheless. "It got to a point where we were just having to bring cars to the track," Kelley said. "For a company this size to have to do that, it's tough. ... Last year, it was as tough as I've ever seen in racing." After a disastrous weekend at Charlotte where they wrecked one car in practice and another on the eighth lap of the race, Stenhouse told his crew chief he wouldn't be at the shop that next Monday. He was going to the beach, or somewhere, just to clear his head.

"Everybody at Ford Racing and Jack, they stuck behind me."


The low points, though, kept coming. Stenhouse spun during qualifying at Nashville and failed to make the event. Since he was sharing a ride home, he had to watch his crippled car get loaded on the trailer, and then stay for the race. Ickler replaced him for the next event, at Kentucky. "I thought I was done then," Stenhouse said. When Johnson was put in the No. 6 for Watkins Glen, Stenhouse went over to nearby Black Rock Speedway and drove a sprint car. He finished second.

Through it all, Kelley knew his driver was fast, and knew the cars would be good enough if they could only stop repairing them and start making them better for the next race. A third-place run last summer at Daytona was the booster shot everyone on the No. 6 team needed, and slowly the crashes began to give way to real results. Kelley could see those small signs only a crew chief can see, like speed and promise that might not be reflected in the finish. Over time, top-10s began to dribble in with a little more regularity. Stenhouse ended his miserable 2010 season with three straight finishes in the top 11. They were finally completing races, able to improve the car with the more laps they ran. Stenhouse was going back to tracks for a second time. Long-awaited pieces were fitting into place.

And Kelley began to sense that an underdog was brewing for 2011, one that now sets the standard. Despite a befuddling lack of full-season primary sponsorship, Stenhouse has recorded 17 top-10s and two victories this year against just one DNF. Kelley loves how the season's final 10 tracks fit his driver's style behind the wheel. The goal at the moment is simply to maintain through a road-race swing where Sadler and Sorenson have the clear edge in experience. Stenhouse was 15th this past weekend at Watkins Glen, a track he had only driven in video games beforehand.

Now Montreal looms, and beyond that the stretch run toward a potential championship that would have seemed unthinkable just a year ago. No wonder Kelley had so much faith in his underdogs in February. No wonder patience is considered a virtue. "Obviously, Jack stuck with me. Right now that's paying off. I feel like it's paying off," Stenhouse said. "... Hopefully, it will give other guys like myself coming up through here a little more time to get used to these things."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

What a difference a year makes

Stenhouse Statistics
YearRankPts.StartsWinsTop 5Top10Avg. StartAvg. Finish

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