News & Media

Stenhouse looks to seize control at Texas

October 31, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

As satisfying as it felt to rally from two laps down and score one of the most dramatic come-from-behind victories in recent NASCAR Nationwide Series history at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago, it was the text message Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got later that really made his weekend.

"Jimmie Johnson texted me and said that he had learned a little something about coming back from us,'' Stenhouse recalled proudly. "That was real cool to get that from him.''

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And like the five-time Cup champion Johnson -- who also pulled off a title-saving comeback in the Cup race at Kansas - Stenhouse is poised to show he also knows a little something about repeating championships.

With three races remaining, the reigning Nationwide Series champ trails Elliott Sadler by a slim six points entering this weekend's race at Texas Motor Speedway -- a place where the country-music-loving, cowboy-hat-wearing Stenhouse couldn't feel or look more at home.

He won the last race in the Lone Star State this spring. And his series-best six victories this season gives Stenhouse a definite and deserved swagger when he arrives in Texas ready to put the pressure on Sadler.

"It's fair to say I feel even a little more confident going there,'' Stenhouse said. "I almost feel like it's home for me since we don't have a track in [my home state] Mississippi.''

His track record on the 1.5-mile oval seems to reflect that. Stenhouse has never started worse than seventh and has four top-11 finishes in five starts, including a sixth place in this event last fall.

In the midst of a tight Nationwide Series championship chase all season and an impending move to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, it's go-time for Stenhouse, who has been among three drivers -- rookie Austin Dillon is still only 26 points out -- tossing the points lead around like a hot potato this year.

"We feel really good right now, the whole team does,'' Stenhouse said this week, "We've got some pretty good momentum with three good tracks for us. Of course they are three good tracks for the 2-car [Sadler], too.

"We'll do the same thing we do every week and that is try to win races. Whether we're six points behind or six points ahead, we're doing the same plan.''

Should Stenhouse hoist the big trophy, he would be the first back-to-back Nationwide champion since Martin Truex Jr. won the 2004-05 titles.

And although Stenhouse insists he'd prefer to be in the catbird seat in points right now, a six-point deficit feels really do-able when you consider that only two years ago he endured a rocky rookie year that could have easily derailed his career -- if not for the faith and loyalty of his team owner Jack Roush.

"I think Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is going to be as good a race car driver as NASCAR has seen, certainly in the modern era and I am glad he is on my side.'' Roush said at Kansas.

"He has been worth the effort. It is much easier to slow a driver down and give him caution and make him conservative than it is to speed him up if he doesn't have the drive.

"Ricky is driven to a fault. He is as motivated as anybody I have ever worked with."

And a second Nationwide title would be the perfect launch for Stenhouse's arrival in NASCAR's big leagues.

"We've performed better this year than last and not to be leading in points, shows that everyone has stepped up their game in this series,'' Stenhouse said.

"I don't think it's any easier. I think it's actually a little tougher to get your second one in a row.

"I'm looking forward to [winning] another cowboy hat. There's two tracks I really want to win at again, and that was Texas and Homestead. If we can get that accomplished, I think we'll have another championship, and that's what we're shooting for.''

"I think we're up for the challenge."