The story leaving Iowa this past Sunday (May 22) was bigger than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It was the breakthrough that an entire series worth of competitors had been waiting months for; a Nationwide Series regular took the checkered flag for the first time in 2011.
That being said, the story now shifts to Stenhouse himself. Heading into race weekend at Charlotte, the Nationwide Series’ newest winner not only comes into Saturday riding a wave of momentum that has his No. 6 team in prime position to win Roush Fenway Racing their first NASCAR championship since 2007… he also has earned his shot at the big time. With fellow prospect Trevor Bayne out of the seat for another week, Stenhouse will take the wheel of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford for another of NASCAR’s most prestigious races… the 600-miler.
It’s ultimately a start that for all the significance of his first win, may end telling more the tale of what to expect from the latest Rookie of the Year winner to emerge from the Roush camp. In the past decade, Roush Fenway Racing has produced five Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year crowns, dating back to Greg Biffle in 2001. And for those seeking to gain insight as to what to expect from the latest in Stenhouse, it’s hard to draw conclusions based on the previous four.
Biffle scored NNS Rookie of the Year honors in 2001 driving RFR’s No. 60, a feat that Carl Edwards repeated in 2005. The two, driving Roush’s flagship Nationwide entry, both had seasons uncharacteristic of rookies, scoring eight wins between the two of their campaigns. Both went on to win Nationwide Series championships, to become the Cup stars that they remain today.
Danny O’Quinn Jr. won the NNS Rookie of the Year crown in 2006, beating out his own teammate, Todd Kluever, the handpicked successor to Mark Martin. Another prospect from that same Gong Show class, David Ragan, followed up with the same accomplishment in 2007. Neither driver scored a win in their first full-time campaign on tour. Both have fallen well short of expectations; O’Quinn has bounced from ride-to-ride ever since while keeping his hands busy in the garage, Ragan has maintained a full-time Cup ride but has fallen far short of the promise his 2008 Cup season showed.
One team, four drivers, two paths. Which path is number five following?
In terms of winning races, the stats show Stenhouse going down the latter. Both Biffle and Edwards scored wins in their first full-time seasons on tour, while O’Quinn never won and Ragan didn’t find victory lane until his third full-time season of Nationwide racing. On the other hand, when it comes to points and consistency, it’s the other away around. Stenhouse has been frequently contending for wins; Stenhouse has four top fives through 12 races this year. By comparison, Ragan had only seven in the 35 races of his second season.
What’s more, Stenhouse has the added benefit of being a magnum bullet in RFR’s chamber this go around… just like Biffle and Edwards during their ROTY runs. Whereas O’Quinn’s No. 50 team back in 2006 was thrown together at the last minute with patchquilt sponsorship all season long and Ragan’s No. 6 car was one of five the Roush camp fielded in the Nationwide Series in 2007, the No. 6 car this season is now clearly the number two Mustang for Ford’s lead team.
Bayne is expected to be back behind the wheel for Chicago next weekend, but with his shot at a driver title all but eliminated and the No. 16 squad now out of the running for the owner’s crown, Stenhouse and his team take priority as Roush’s only shot at a Nationwide driver’s title this year. The Iowa win just legitimized that fact.
Still, it’s perhaps this upcoming Cup race at Charlotte that will truly tell the tale. Biffle went on to be a Cup star and scored a top-15 run at Fontana in his first Cup start. Edwards went on to be a Cup star and scored a top 10 at Michigan in his first Cup start. O’Quinn never got that shot, while Ragan finished 42nd in his first Cup race at Dover, wrecking after only 46 circuits.
The Wood Brothers’ No. 21 car is certainly up to the task… Bayne scored a top 20 in his debut with the team at Texas just a season ago. Whether Stenhouse is up to it when the green flag drops on the Coca-Cola 600 this Sunday may well tell the tale of just how far the Nationwide Series’ last Rookie of the Year…and latest winner, will go up this sport’s ladder.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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