Five races into the year, David Ragan is outside the top 20 in points for the third consecutive time. He didn’t end the season well in the previous two years either; he hasn’t finished inside the top 20 since 2008 in what is more and more appearing to be a fluke season. Point is, while he still has a ride, Ragan already has two strikes and the next pitch is a 100-mph fastball.
I noted last month that with Trevor Bayne’s stunning victory in the Daytona 500, Ragan would need to have an amazing year to avoid getting replaced by Bayne. The 20-year-old Bayne was already rumored to be Ragan’s replacement in the near future, and that was before winning the sport’s biggest race.
What a difference a month makes.
Now that Bayne-Mania has settled down, it’s time to ponder if he is actually ready for full time Sprint Cup racing. Since winning in February, he hasn’t done much on the Cup side other than hit the wall a few times. Granted, the Wood Brothers aren’t the same dominant team they were in the ’70s… and that actually makes Bayne’s victory look even better. But Daytona was a restrictor-plate race that allowed even Front Row Motorsports to earn a top-five finish. If you take the improbable win out of the equation, Bayne hasn’t looked Cup ready at this point. It’s still early, but sponsors and owners expect instant success these days.
It’s ironic; when he was still driving for Diamond Waltrip Racing in Nationwide, Bayne was thought by some (including me) to be the next big thing. His maturity level is more like a 20-year veteran than a 20-year-old kid, he says all the right things and he represents the Southeast, something the sport has been missing for years. Don’t get me wrong; he is still on pace to be the next star (technically he already has become one, even if Derrike Cope won the Daytona 500 once) but now everyone is watching him closely. Still winless in the Nationwide Series, the pressure is on for him to perform.
Bayne is off to a decent start as he sits sixth in the standings. Last year he finished seventh, but second out of Nationwide only drivers. Now that Cup drivers are ineligible to compete for the title, it’s made Bayne a preseason favorite for the championship. Anything less than being in contention would be a disappointment. He is still improving, but it is the improvement of another driver that has displaced Bayne as the leading candidate for a Cup ride at Roush Fenway Racing next year – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse, the other driver in Jack Roush’s Nationwide lineup, is having quite a season for himself. Yes, the same guy who crashed out in five of his first 13 starts last year along with one DNQ because he spun out in qualifying. He even admitted to saying he was afraid his fate had been sealed after not making the race in Nashville last June. Then things started to turn around beginning with the Daytona race in July where he finished third.
Since then, there have been more top 10s and less wrecks (in fact, he has finished every race he’s started since Charlotte of last May). Ironically, the turnaround that began at Daytona marked the first race for the next-generation car, something Stenhouse believes has been part of the reason for his improvement.
“It is a new car and it fit my driving style,” he said. “I feel like the four races we ran last year with our Mustang were some of my best races. We had a couple top fives with it and we were fast but didn’t get the finishes we needed in the four Mustang races. It is a combination of everything. The new FR9 motors and Roush Yates has done an awesome job with those. We have new cars and engineering with the Cup cars which are running good also. We have the same team as last year, which helps, and I think I am just more focused.”
Now, just a few months later, the 23-year-old out of Olive Branch, Miss. finds himself leading the points standings in the Nationwide Series.
Say what you want about the Cup guys taking the spotlight away from the Nationwide teams, but he has been able to run with them and in doing so, has made himself look good. If not for an ill-timed caution at Bristol, he may have had something for Kyle Busch there at the end, and this past week he was able to take the lead away from Carl Edwards and lead a few laps.
Cup Series regulars that continue to run Nationwide on a weekly basis have helped drivers such as Stenhouse. He may not have the name recognition or the resume that Bayne has built up lately, but his improvement over the past eight months has been simply amazing.
I personally expressed worry in one of our Mirror Driving debates last year if Stenhouse ever made it to the Cup Series. Now, not even a year later, he looks more like a potential Sprint Cup rookie for 2012 than the moving roadblock he once was. For many people, the best way to learn is by making mistakes and Stenhouse has made enough errors to finally drive like a pro. His results this year have backed that up.
It is also worth nothing that both Stenhouse and Bayne could be racing at the Cup level next year for the Roush organization. Current RFR drivers Edwards and Greg Biffle both have contracts that expire after this year. While it’s likely both of them will re-sign with the team, anything is possible. In reality, Ragan appears to be the most likely candidate to be replaced after (maybe even during) this season and Ricky Stenhouse, not Trevor Bayne, has emerged as the best replacement option.
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