Race Weekend Central

2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2012 Rides: No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2012 Primary Sponsors: Kellogg’s, NOS Energy Drink, Ford EcoBoost, Cargill Beef, Sam’s Club, Fastenal, Valvoline, Pure Michigan, Blue Bird
2012 Owner: Jack Roush
2012 Crew Chiefs: Mike Kelley
2012 Nationwide Series Stats: 6 wins, 19 top 5s, 26 top 10s, 4 poles, Nationwide Series champion

High Point: Any of those six wins looked awful good, but the high point of the season for Stenhouse came on a night where the No. 6 team didn’t visit victory lane. With the laps winding down in the Bristol night race, Stenhouse’s charge for the top five put him right on the bumper of the man he was trailing for the championship, Elliott Sadler. And it didn’t matter.

Stenhouse put a classic bump-and-run on the No. 2 car, driving off to a runner-up finish while Sadler limped home fifth and could do nothing but whine and threaten post-race. It marked a turning point in the 2012 campaign; Stenhouse would finish top two in each of the next three races, while the No. 2 team never got the momentum back, winding up losing the title for the second consecutive season.

Low Point: As close as the 2012 title chase was until Sadler’s late-race wreck at Phoenix in the fall, this battle never would have happened had Stenhouse and the No. 6 team not had a maddening slump of their own in the late spring. Coming off a mechanical failure that parked a completely dominant car for the team at Charlotte, it wasn’t 30 laps into the following week’s race at Dover that Stenhouse made an unassisted spin into the inside retaining wall of the Monster Mile backstretch. The 32nd-place finish was Stenhouse’s worst of the 2012 season, and perhaps the one time he looked like the wreck-fest driver he was in 2010.

Summary: Mission accomplished for Stenhouse and his team, even if they made themselves sweat with that ugly late-spring start. For the second consecutive season, the No. 6 team put Roush Fenway Racing on top of the Nationwide Series, and this year they did it topping not only former Cup driver Sadler but a Richard Childress Racing outfit making a return to a series they’ve all but dominated in their history. 2011 was clearly no fluke… the 2010 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that kept an army of fabricators working 24 hours a day is dead and gone.

Stenhouse could not have picked a better season to prove just how far he’s come as a driver, as RFR ended 2012 by losing their most “senior citizen”… and arguably their most accomplished wheelman in Matt Kenseth. Fortunately, between leaving the Nationwide program in tip-top shape for teammate Trevor Bayne and securing backing from existing sponsors Zest and Fastenal, as well as longtime backer Cargill Beef, Stenhouse has done well to keep the third Cup car at RFR in position to contend from Speedweeks onwards.

One shouldn’t expect miracles, though. Stenhouse’s Nationwide Series history indicates that while a thorough study, he’s not always a quick one. Losing Kenseth and all of his expertise will also not help his transition to Cup racing, as Greg Biffle will have to adjust to his new role as senior leader in the RFR camp while Carl Edwards and the No. 99 squad struggle to figure out their own cars. But, just like the last back-to-back Nationwide champion in Martin Truex Jr., Stenhouse has gotten everything he can out of the sport’s second-tier division. Fortunately for driver and team, 2012 ended with the hardware to prove it.

Team Ranking: First. He may have been the only full-time competitor for RFR en route to his second consecutive Nationwide Series championship, but Stenhouse was not a first-place driver within the organization by default, either. The Mississippi native went from consistent in 2011 to dominant in 2012, posting a career-high six wins.

More importantly, Stenhouse entered the offseason with nearly 70% of the races sold on his soon-to-be Cup car… a feat even former champion Kenseth (whom he is replacing) could not accomplish a year ago. Bayne may have won the Daytona 500, but Stenhouse is the rising star in the Ford camp.

Off-Track News: See above for sponsorship sales. Stenhouse’s Cup car is not fully backed for 2013, but there’s not going to a plethora of blank Cup cars fielded by the Roush camp, either. Considering the fight he had even at the Nationwide level to find sponsors, this offseason has to be considered a victory.

2013 Outlook: Past history plus Stenhouse’s average finish of 26.5 in his four Cup races this season indicate that he’s not going to take off like a rocketship in his full-time Cup debut (just look at Brad Keselowski and his struggles in year one). Having said that, Stenhouse is taking over a team that’s been a Chase fixture for nearly a decade and he’s an in-house hire. Chemistry and support from the shop will not be a problem. Nor will the wrecks and erratic driving that marred Stenhouse’s introductory days in the Nationwide ranks.

A Chase berth is a stretch, but finishing top 20 in points and contending for a win on a plate or intermediate track is not.

2011 Frontstretch Grade: A+
2012 Grade: A

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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