News & Media

Caraviello: Thanks in part to rule change, a new star is born

November 19, 2011, David Caraviello,

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Two days after the final race of the 2010 Nationwide Series campaign, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sat at the Nationwide Series awards banquet in the Loews Miami Beach Hotel and watched Brad Keselowski receive his award for claiming that season's title. Then and there, Stenhouse and crew chief Mike Kelley made a pact -- that's going to be us up there next year, they told one another. At the time, they had to be the only true believers, given the turbulent ride Stenhouse had endured between nearly losing his job and winning rookie of the year.

Two months later, those hopes received a considerable boost when reports surfaced that NASCAR was implementing a rule change that would limit drivers to a championship run in only one national series. That meant Keselowski wasn't eligible to repeat. That meant Carl Edwards, or anyone else harboring hopes of a Sprint Cup crown, wasn't eligible to win the title. That meant the Nationwide championship had to go to a driver who focused solely on that series.

Closing in

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just has to finish 37th or better to lock up the Nationwide title, but he isn't going to take his foot off the throttle to get there.

Somebody like Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

"When they changed the points system, nobody really counted us in," Stenhouse said, "but we felt like as a race team, that gave us an even better shot to win it. We just fought really hard all year. We came into this season feeling like we had a shot at it."

Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it all came to fruition when Stenhouse claimed the Nationwide Series crown, wrapping up his first title at NASCAR's national level. In the process, Stenhouse's championship validates one of the best recent rule changes NASCAR has made -- the policy of limiting drivers to only one title run. It was controversial and somewhat awkward at first, particularly when the season-opening events at Daytona were swept by drivers who couldn't win those same championships. Many early race rundowns were littered with names that had an (i) next to them, meaning those drivers were ineligible to receive championship points.

By now, though, it's become clear that the move was the right one for a series that has long struggled to find its own identity, and recently has been overrun by moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers who hog much of the sponsorship and many of the race victories. Yes, Stenhouse's No. 6 car came to South Florida third in owners' points, and without the exclusion rule Edwards may very well be hunting two titles this year instead of one. But Stenhouse stuck his nose right into the mix and proved he belonged. He won multiple races, he ran as well or better than big dogs like Edwards and Keselowski, and he rewarded the faith car owner Jack Roush placed in him by showing that his championship is not just a fluke of this system.

"It would have been tough to beat the full-time guys like Carl and Brad," Stenhouse concedes. "But we're third in owner points, so I feel like we've done our fair share of running up front with those guys and getting a couple of wins. We beat Carl, we beat Brad. We know we can do it. I think with everything we learned this year, the way we start next year, we could be even stronger than what we ended this year with. Ultimately, I'd like to win the championship and the owners championship for Jack. That would mean a lot."

In all honesty, NASCAR needed this, particularly given that the previous five Nationwide champions had all come from the Sprint Cup ranks. No question, in a sponsor market that's so tight even a past Cup champion like Matt Kenseth still doesn't have a backer for next season, corporations seem hesitant to put their money behind young and somewhat unheralded drivers. Stenhouse has raced for much of this year in a blank white car. But this is also a sport that desperately needs emerging stars, and Stenhouse shows every sign of becoming one, from the way he drives the race car -- his effort last week on the reconfigured Phoenix oval, where he essentially clinched this crown, was textbook -- to his refusal to back down from even older and more accomplished drivers like Edwards.

"He is an amazing driver," said Edwards, Stenhouse's teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, and the leader by three points in the Sprint Cup championship race. "He's really, really good. He will win multiple championships. He will be sitting right here where I'm sitting before long. He's unreal, so I'm happy for him."

In a sport where many of the popular drivers are starting to gray around the temples, 2011 will be remembered as a banner year for emerging stars. Ten months ago, 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500. On Friday night 21-year-old Austin Dillon wrapped up the Camping World Truck Series title, giving the black No. 3 of car owner and grandfather Richard Childress its first championship since Dale Earnhardt's last in 1994. And now comes the 24-year-old Stenhouse, complete with his cowboy boots and big belt buckle, a rodeo rider in a stock car. All three are young, talented and charismatic, just the type of drivers NASCAR needed to unearth.

No wonder NASCAR seems pleased with a policy change that limited Sprint Cup drivers to their own sandbox.

"I think it's worked just the way we wanted it to," series chairman Brian France said. "We wanted to showcase the young drivers in their own series, and still have the participation of drivers with a lot of experience, and that's exactly what we've gotten. I think it's been good for the young drivers to get some different notoriety and the honor and prestige of winning a championship, and the money that comes with that, and all the best. It's been a good thing."

Granted, there's a downside to all this. Those moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers often drive ticket sales at Nationwide events, and their star power attracts sponsors who might not otherwise be interested in the series. In addition to his primary duties on NASCAR's premier series, Edwards competed in all but two Nationwide events since the start of the 2005 season. Next year, he's scaling back that effort -- in part because he wants to focus more on winning Cup championships, and in part because he can't win another Nationwide crown to go along with the one he claimed in 2007.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2011 Stats
Laps Led519
Avg. Start7.3
Avg. Finish9.0
Weeks/No. 117

"It was disappointing to me to find out after I had committed to running the Nationwide Series full-time this year that we couldn't run for the championship, but I believe I'm probably one of the few people who that is frustrating for. For everyone else -- fans, drivers, teams -- it's probably best what NASCAR is doing, and I couldn't be happier for Ricky," Edwards said. "... I don't know how many races I'm going to run next year. I don't know if it will be zero or 20. I don't know what I'm going to do in the Nationwide Series. But, yeah, that made it a little easier when they said, 'Hey, you can't run for the driver's championship,' because that's really fun to do. To me, my dream for the last seven years would be to win both championships in one year. That would be spectacular."

No question, the Nationwide tour would suffer if drivers like Edwards weren't out there mixing it up. But by limiting the championship to only Nationwide drivers, NASCAR opened the door for new stars to be created, and for its No. 2 national tour to act more as the developmental circuit it's always needed to be. Without the rule change, this Nationwide finale is a footnote to the larger drama playing out between Edwards and Tony Stewart on the Sprint Cup side. With it, Stenhouse carves out a little slice of the spotlight for himself.

"I thought it worked," said Sadler, who moved from the Cup ranks into a full-time Nationwide ride for this year. "It gave us our own stories that we have for the Nationwide Series. I think it worked for Nationwide as a sponsor. That was the main part of doing that, making sure they can use their champion to do all of their things, and not trying to use a Sprint Cup Series driver that has all their ties to Sprint. What NASCAR did didn't hurt the racing any -- we still saw some great races on the race track. And it helped bring some awareness to some drivers that wouldn't normally get it."

Truck Series runner-up Johnny Sauter, also a veteran of the Nationwide ranks, agreed. "I think it's worked tremendously," he said. "I'm glad it's implemented now, but it's long overdue. I don't think it's affected the Truck Series at all, really, but it's definitely had a huge impact on the Nationwide Series, and I think that's what that series needs, to get kind of its own identity. It's a series that young guys can come in and make a name for themselves, or stay there. It was something that was long overdue."

Challenges remain here, of course, despite the almost universal acclaim. Sponsors and fans alike need to warm to some of these drivers, who comprise the sport's next generation. Nationwide regulars need to remain competitive -- not necessarily a given, particularly given that Stenhouse's breakthrough followed a year when only one non-Cup driver won a race on the Nationwide tour. Money needs to be found to ensure that young, worthy drivers continue to get the opportunities they deserve, rather than scraping by in underfunded vehicles and waiting on chances that will never come.

All that, though, can wait. Saturday belonged to a young Mississippian who became the first, but hopefully not the last, beneficiary of a policy change that aims to ensure the sport's future. A star was born on the Nationwide Series this season, one who may very well win races and championships at the highest level some day, and NASCAR as a whole is better because of it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.