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Stenhouse's Sprint Cup move perfectly timed

January 03, 2013, Alan Cavanna,

More confidence, new car key to 2013 effort

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stood at center court during halftime at a recent Ohio State University men’s basketball game, smiling with pride and validation as the announcer congratulated him on his second straight NASCAR Nationwide Series championship. It was a final moment of celebration for Stenhouse, who is moving to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.

Though car owner Jack Roush believed Stenhouse was ready for NASCAR’s top series last year, Stenhouse wanted another year in Nationwide. 

“I feel like I had some more to learn,” Stenhouse said. “I felt like I could get better as a driver.”

"He's winning races against the best in the business."

-- Joe Balash, former Nationwide Series director

His last season in the Nationwide Series shows that instinct was a good one. In 2011, he recorded two Nationwide victories, both standalone events in Iowa. In 2012, he won six races, many against Sprint Cup regulars. Crew chief Mike Kelley, who was at the helm of Stenhouse’s team during those two seasons, believes those 2012 wins helped solidify Stenhouse’s reputation as a breakout driver.

“Races like Atlanta, when he went and took that race from Kevin Harvick,” Kelley said. “Chicago, when he drove by Kyle Busch with 20 to go to win. Vegas, when we started side-by-side with Mark Martin. Those are three of the best that ever sat in the Nationwide car, and this kid took races from them and raced those guys hard all year.”

Those wins seemed to announce to the sport that Stenhouse was a threat on the track.

“He’s winning races against the double-duty drivers,” former Nationwide Series Director Joe Balash said. “It’s not like he won the points championship without winning. He’s winning races against the best in the business.”

Stenhouse will pilot the No. 17 car for Roush Fenway Racing in Sprint Cup under the leadership of longtime engineer and first-time crew chief Scott Graves. It’s the same car that Matt Kenseth used to win last year’s Daytona 500 and qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

“I’m in the 17 car, but it’s not the same crew,” Stenhouse said. “It’s not the same crew chief. It’s not anything the same. So I don’t think there’s pressure from that standpoint that, ‘Hey, that car was in the Chase last year, it was leading the points, winning races.’ I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, go out and win races. But nobody has pressure on me right now.”

Stenhouse is setting his own expectations for his rookie season, saying he wants to run in the top 15 early on, and contend for wins by season’s end. He’ll have to do it without his best friend, Kelley, overseeing his crew. Kelley is choosing to stay back and lead Trevor Bayne’s Nationwide effort, but says the timing of Stenhouse’s rookie effort in the Sprint Cup is perfect.

“You’ve got the brand new car,” Kelley said, referring to the Generation-6 car debuting in Sprint Cup. “They opened up the testing, (he’s) coming off a great year in Nationwide, his confidence is high. He’s got great backing from his sponsors.”

Kelley expects Stenhouse’s 2013 season to be just as impressive as 2012.

“I would not be surprised to see that kid come out of the box and be the talk of 2013.”