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Reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looks for big gains in sophomore Sprint Cup season

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It was a rough ride for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his rookie season on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup circuit last season.

Sure, he won Rookie of the Year honors, but the lack of wins, just one top-five finish and a 19th-place overall season finish were things the Olive Branch, Miss., native just wasn’t used to.

“Oh, it sucked,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk at last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C. “Last year was (one of the few) years I didn’t win a race in my career of racing from the time I was six. So, that was disappointing, but at least with Rookie of the Year, we kind of won something.”

Stenhouse looks for a significantly improved sophomore Cup season in 2014. The biggest change – and one that he feels will make a world of difference – is being reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley.

That’s not a slight against Stenhouse’s crew chief last season, Scott Graves. The duo got along fine, had good communication and worked well together, but it just wasn’t the same kind of relationship that Stenhouse and Kelley had.

And what a relationship it was: from the moment Kelley took over from Ben Leslie after the sixth race of the 2010 season, he and Stenhouse immediately grew into a formidable duo.

Sure, there were some growing pains in that first season, as Stenhouse finished 16th in the Nationwide standings, didn’t win a race, led just 40 laps and managed only three top-five finishes. It was also the season that team owner Jack Roush sat Stenhouse out of three races to drive home a point that either Stenhouse change his attitude and stop wrecking race cars unnecessarily, or else his NASCAR career would be short-lived.

Roush’s plan worked, and with Kelley’s help, Stenhouse began to make a dramatic turnaround that manifested itself in 2011 and 2012 with back-to-back NNS championships. Stenhouse won two races in 2011, along with 16 top five and 26 top 10 finishes and three poles. For an encore in 2012, he dominated the NNS with six wins, 19 top five and 26 top 10s, as well as four poles.

Almost all the credit for that turnaround, besides Roush of course, was Kelley atop the pit box. And now that the pair is reunited for 2014 in the Sprint Cup Series, Stenhouse has hopes that what the duo did in the NNS can be replicated in the Sprint Cup circuit.

“Having Mike back on the pit box is going to be huge,” Stenhouse said. “That chemistry that we had in the Nationwide Series is tough to match. Him and I are having a lot of fun in the offseason, the guys are having fun and that’s what teams are all about.

“Just because you have the best mechanics on a team doesn’t mean you’re going to have the best team. You still have to have that chemistry and I think we have that this year, and that’s exactly what I felt what we were missing last year.”

Indeed, there was a lot missing last season as Stenhouse had no wins, just one top-five, three top 10s and one pole as a rookie Sprint Cup driver. In addition, he led only 35 laps, and had an average start of 18.3 and average finish of 18.9.

“It was disappointing, but I think towards the end of the season we got going in the right direction, we qualified better and started running more up front and getting a few more top 10s,” Stenhouse said. “So, I think we’re going to take that momentum, apply it to this year and really hit it strong.”

Kelley chose to serve as crew chief for Trevor Bayne last season rather than joining Stenhouse in the jump to Sprint Cup. Family reasons were part of it, but the lure of working together and trying to replicate in Sprint Cup what they did in the Nationwide Series was just too much of a lure for Kelley to pass up a second straight season.

“There’s no reintroduction time between myself and Mike,” Stenhouse said. “From the time that we started running together in Nationwide in 2010, I don’t think there’s been a day that we haven’t talked. Even last year, I talked to him every single day, we texted every day, and after every race we’d call each other. If him and Trevor had a bad race, he’d call me, and if I had a bad race, I’d call him. We just never lost that chemistry that we had, so it takes no time to get back into that.

“The fun we had in those three years in Nationwide kind of also brought him back. I think the excitement that we had, the level of fun that we had with our race team and him and I together, but also the results. He was here in the Sprint Cup garage as a car chief, learning from Jimmy Fennig and winning championships and races, and just like every other crew chief, mechanic, driver, spotters – everyone was working to get to that top level.  … I’m kind of glad he let me get my feet wet in the Sprint Cup Series first before him jumping over, and I think we can start off a little bit faster that way.”

Admittedly, it wasn’t just a rough season for Stenhouse in 2013, it also was difficult for his Sprint Cup teammates, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. While the latter two drivers both made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, their performance in the 10-race playoff left a lot to be desired: Biffle finished ninth in the Chase, while Edwards was dead last in the expanded 13-driver field.

Much of the reason for that deficiency was the overall perception that Ford motors just didn’t have the kind of horsepower to keep up with their counterparts at Chevrolet and Toyota. That perception proved to be reality, as Ford-powered drivers combined for just a paltry six wins in last season’s 36 Sprint Cup races.

But Stenhouse perceives a whole different reality in 2014.

“I think the cars that Roush Fenway are building now are going to be a step above of what we had,” he said. “And I’m really just looking forward to getting on the racetrack and seeing everything that we’ve worked for in this offseason kind of merge together and pay off.”

No story about Stenhouse would be complete without at least a mention of his highly publicized relationship with fellow Sprint Cup racer Danica Patrick. When news broke about a year ago that the two were a romantic item, there was considerable notoriety and attention from the media.

But as the season went on, Patrick and Stenhouse the couple were all but forgotten, with the majority of interest being on Patrick and Stenhouse the race car drivers and their respective struggles in their first full seasons in the Sprint Cup series in 2013.

“We knew at the beginning of the season there was going to be a lot of questions, but I think (the media) did fairly well at giving us the respect and focusing in on the racetrack stuff,” Stenhouse said. “I was definitely thankful for that because it let us focus on our racing and worry about what we needed to do to be better on the racetrack.”

Patrick and Stenhouse are still going strong off the racetrack and the man that some fans have teasingly called “Mr. Danica Patrick” – something he takes good-naturedly – thinks both their relationship and their on-track performance will both grow even stronger in 2014.

“We’re both ready to get back on the racetrack and improve upon what we did last year,” Stenhouse said. “We both feel like we have a lot of room for improvement and are both looking forward to it.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Sarrazin rounds out stacked Rebellion Racing lineup at Daytona

Photo: Rebellion Racing
Photo: Rebellion Racing
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Imagine taking the reigning 24 Hours of Le Mans and FIA World Endurance Championship champion from Porsche, the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship and reigning FIA Formula E champion from Toyota, a multiple-time Petit Le Mans winner from Rebellion Racing, then pair them with Toyota’s longest active driver in the FIA WEC, and put them all in one car.

And in that one car, you have a ridiculously stacked lineup that Rebellion Racing is putting together in its Oreca 07 for the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Stephane Sarrazin has been confirmed today as the fourth driver alongside Neel Jani, Nick Heidfeld and Sebastien Buemi in a thoroughly impressive lineup for the Bart Hayden-run operation, which makes its return to the U.S. starting with next year’s Rolex 24 as part of a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup lineup. Jani and Heidfeld have raced together with Rebellion in the past and Daytona marks its reunion.

“After our success in the American Le Mans Series races in 2012 and 2013, we always wanted to find a way back to competing in the USA,” Hayden said when the team announced its U.S. return. “We are very excited to be able to return with a new prototype and to race in the North American Endurance Cup in 2017.  Reuniting Nick with Neel and adding Seb gives us a top line driver line-up and signals our intention which is to compete at the highest level and hopefully to win again in the USA.”

The Prototype class field at the Rolex 24 should be well north of 12 entries – perhaps 15 or more – and most of them will have pretty impressive lineups for the debut of the new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) format along with the new-for-2017-spec LMP2 cars.

Alexander Rossi’s likeness revealed on Borg-Warner Trophy (PHOTOS)

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All photos: LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner
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One of the hallmarks of the racing offseason is that the Indianapolis 500 winner gets to have his or her face immortalized on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Alexander Rossi is the latest addition now, the rookie winner of the 100th running having had his face get added and revealed today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Rossi’s face is actually the 103rd on the trophy, because of two co-drivers that won the race and an additional tribute to Tony Hulman, who bought and saved the Speedway after World War II.

As part of the process, Rossi met with sculptor Will Behrends in September in Tryon, NC, getting his life-size image. That’s then shrunk down as part of a several-step process.

“I think it’s cooler than looking in the mirror for sure! Because as we were talking about it, this kind of reminds me; it’s the first time you see something that’s not reversed,” Rossi said. “And I’m still tripping out about it! I’ve been here for a couple of hours now, but it’s very cool. It’s very special and it’s way more detailed, accurate and amazing than I ever thought it would be.

“What Will was able to do, I mean, it blows my mind that he was able to get this so accurate just from pictures. I am so far from being anywhere close to an artist but you can really appreciate what he’s done and I don’t even know where to begin in how you acquire such an amazing skill set. It’s fantastic that I had the opportunity to work with him for a short period of time and I think that it’s a very special program to be part of.”

Behrends added, “This is of course my 27th year of doing these images on the Borg-Warner Trophy and going to see the race. This one was particularly interesting and exciting because of the way it ended and the winner. It was just a fantastic ending, everyone was on the edge of their seat, and standing up at the end. It was very exciting.”

Photos from the process leading to the reveal are below, with more to come tonight following the conclusion of the event itself.

All photos courtesy LAT Photo USA for BorgWarner:

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Flashback: When Max Chilton gave fiancee ‘terrifying’ ride in race car

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Somehow, we missed this one the first time it came around — but even a few months later, it still bears sharing. And thanks to the Goodwood Festival of Speed for re-posting on its Facebook page not long after the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale in Sonoma, which is where it caught our eye.

Back in late March, Verizon IndyCar Series driver Max Chilton wanted to give new fiancee Chloe Roberts an up close and personal insight into how a race car driver does his thing behind the wheel.

Chilton confirmed today during a Facebook Live video that they’ll get married during the August 2017 break in IndyCar’s schedule, likely between the Mid-Ohio and Pocono race weekends.

Alas, Chilton was at the 74th members meeting of the Goodwood Festival of Speed when he was given the opportunity to hop into an old car of NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jamie McMurray’s.

“It’s very different from what I’m used to,” Chilton said in a video posted on the Festival’s official Facebook page. “It’s very big, heavy, it’s got similar paths to what I’m used to but it’s like a tank of a race car.

“But it’s perfect for what I’m doing today and hopefully it puts on a good show for everyone.”

That’s when Max got the bright idea to take Chloe for a spin.

“Chloe has never been in a racing car, and so she’s never seen what I get out to,” he said. “This isn’t really what I get out to, but it’ll give her the sensation of noise and smoke and the acceleration and adrenaline of having fun in these cars.”

Roberts approached the chance for a ride along with hesitation and trepidation – even requesting to don a helmet when Max informed her he’d be doing some doughnuts with the car.

Still, Roberts was a good sport and went through with it, even though there was a slight blip in plans early on.

“It’s always reassuring when you don’t know how to start a car,” she chided her boyfriend, who struggled to get the Chevrolet SS going.

The best part of the video was when Chilton decided to do a few burnouts. Let’s just say Roberts’ mouth went agape and her facial expressions were priceless.

When the ride ended, Chloe summed things up in just one word: “Terrifying.”

It’s a good thing Max asked Chloe to marry him a week earlier. If he would have waited until after the ride along, who knows what may have happened, right?

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA’s December test entry list features DPi, new Porsche public debuts

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Top photo: Cadillac Racing. Bottom photo: Mazda.
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After private testing has taken place for the two manufacturers who have revealed their Daytona Prototype international (DPi) models, Cadillac and Mazda, both cars’ public debuts will occur at next week’s December 13-14 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at the Daytona International Speedway.

Additionally, the new Porsche 911 RSR is set for its first official public running.

Official names for the DPi cars are the Cadillac DPi-V.R and Mazda RT24-P, respectively, although on this first version of the entry list they’re just labeled as Cadillac DPi and Mazda DPi. The VISIT FLORIDA Racing entry is listed as a Multimatic Riley LMP2.

Those five cars headline the entries for the test, which also features 23 combined GT cars from GT Le Mans and GT Daytona (eight and 15 cars, respectively).

Photo: Porsche
Photo: Porsche

In GTLM, both Corvette C7.Rs, both Ford GTs, both Porsche 911 RSRs (the new model’s anticipated public on-track debut, following Los Angeles Auto Show launch, see above) and a BMW M6 GTLM and Ferrari 488 GTE apiece will test.

GTD sees entries from Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus, Mercedes-AMG, Porsche, Ferrari and Acura.

The full list is linked here.