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Spotlight: Stenhouse knows he can't coast to title

October 19, 2011, Joe Menzer,

With 15-point advantage on Sadler, championship leader must remain aggressive

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler both have finished in the top 10 in five of the past six races. Each driver has finished better than the other three times in the same span. (Getty Images)

Despite owning a seemingly hefty 20-point lead in the Nationwide Series standings, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. vowed heading into this past Friday's event at Charlotte Motor Speedway not to play it conservatively.

That is not, he said, what got him the lead in the first place. So he went out determined not to drive in some form of football's prevent defense, but to drive instead as he had driven all year -- aggressively, with an eye always focused on getting to the front.

2011 Comparison

Stenhouse vs. Sadler
21st or worse42
Laps Led/Races446/16157/10
Avg. Start7.29.2
Avg. Finish9.29.3

"Elliott Sadler is not going to finish outside of the top 10 -- so you have to do something better to beat him in this championship."


The end results only proved his point that his battle with Elliott Sadler, his closest pursuer, is not yet over. With only three races now left on the Nationwide schedule, time is running out for Sadler to catch Stenhouse -- but Sadler did make up significant ground by finishing fourth to Stenhouse's ninth at Charlotte, cutting Stenhouse's lead to 15 points.

"I think you've got to do what got you here," Stenhouse said. "We go out each and every week and we feel like we have an opportunity to win. We feel like we bring great race cars to the track and that's what we do. We go out there, we practice, we work on our car, we don't worry about what anybody else is doing. We just make our car better and better and we go out and race and try to get the best result that we can.

"I think you have to be on your game. You have to go out and feel like you can win and try to win because Elliott Sadler is not going to finish outside of the top 10 -- so you have to do something better to beat him in this championship. We've got to go out and do the same thing we've done all year and that's go out and consistently run in the top five and challenge for some wins."

Sadler is aware of what he needs to do, as well.

"What we have to do in the 2 car is lead some laps and run up front every time out," he said. "Ricky and his guys are such a good race team, and Ricky has done such a good job. They're the real deal.

"So we feel like we're going to have to run up front, run in the top two or three every race, to even have a chance at the championship by the time we get to Homestead [for the season finale on Nov. 19]."

Stenhouse knows something about accomplishing what others think impossible, so he's careful to make certain he doesn't count on this championship before it's truly secure. Last year he had to rally from a 35-point deficit -- largest in series history -- to earn Nationwide rookie of the year honors. He did so by finishing the season with a flourish -- eight finishes of 14th or better during the final 10 races.

Now that he's trying to win a championship, he knows he'll likely have to be even better than that during these final three races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. The Nationwide Series has this weekend off.

"The biggest thing I worry about are the things you can't quite control on a race weekend -- like your transmission or your engine going out on you," Stenhouse said. "Now that we have the lead, we've prided ourselves over the whole year on not making mistakes.

"We made some mistakes in Kansas [two weeks ago], and fortunately for us battled back from it to get a top-five [finish]. But we can't have mistakes on pit road become a big issue. It's tough in these Nationwide races to come back. The competition is so stout throughout the middle that it's hard to start at any point in the back and have to come up to the front."

If it's any consolation to Stenhouse, Sadler is feeling even more pressure than he is.

"They're just too good a race team for us to feel like we can just run top-10 and close the gap," Sadler said. "We ran third [at Kansas], fought all weekend, and only gained two points. I think it's going to be that type of championship battle all the way to Homestead. They're way too good a race team for us to think we do not have to run in the top two or three to gain points on them."

It has been a phenomenal season for Stenhouse, who was worried about possibly losing his Roush Fenway Racing ride last season before rallying to win rookie honors. In 31 starts thus far, he has two wins (both at Iowa Speedway), three poles, 14 top-fives and 23 top-10s.

He admitted that winning the Nationwide championship would be thrilling.

"It would mean a lot. It would definitely be my biggest accomplishment ever in my racing career," Stenhouse said. "After the way last year went, struggling so bad the first part of the year and turning it around at the end of the year, it really makes you appreciate where we are right now as a race team.

"The same guys are on my car as we had last year and it would just mean a lot to everybody at Ford, my family and everybody on this race team to get that championship. We came into the year thinking that we were going be able to run for it and now that we've got [three] races left and have a shot at it, we're exactly where we need to be."