Just a little more than two years ago, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was celebrating a second consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. But those two years may feel much longer at this point.
As his Roush Fenway Racing team has struggled, Stenhouse’s own decline after jumping full-time to the Sprint Cup Series has been notable. Last year saw him drop to 27th in the championship from 19th in his rookie season, and also fail to lead a single lap.
Stenhouse will enter his third Cup campaign in 2015, and observers will be watching to see if he makes legitimate improvement under new crew chief Nick Sandler, who was lead engineer for former teammate Carl Edwards’ team.
But as far as pressure on himself goes, Stenhouse says that this year isn’t as big as any other.
“I feel like I can do it,” he said. “I really don’t lack confidence in my ability to get the job done in a race car. That’s what I’ve done ever since I grew up is perform in each race car I’ve been in. I want the Cup car to be no different. We struggled when we first started in the Xfinity Series (2010 – no wins, three top-5s, eight top-10s, 16th in points) and bounced back to be very successful there. We plan on doing that here.
“Obviously, I wanted it the first year, and if not the first year, I thought it would be the second year, and that didn’t work. We’re gonna keep plugging away, and I think our results will be better.”
With Sandler’s guidance, Stenhouse hopes that he and the 17 team will resist temptation to carry out major changes to poor cars and instead work on improving them bit by bit to get more consistent results. That was a tack taken by Sandler, Edwards, and crew chief Jimmy Fennig when they were together on the No. 99 team at Roush.
Adding to Stenhouse’s confidence in Sandler’s ability is the fact that his former crew chief, Mike Kelley, also believes Sandler can get the job done. Kelley has now become the car chief for the No. 17 team, and his decision to stick around has meant a lot to Stenhouse.
“I asked Mike before all of this went down if he was OK with it and if he was OK and felt confident that Nick would be able to get the job done, then I would be OK with it too,” Stenhouse said of Kelley. “He’s got a lot of confidence in Nick and it’s cool being in the shop this off-season seeing Mike get back into being that car guy, building pit boxes, and making these cars as nice as they can be.
“As a crew chief, you do get to do that often. You’re stuck to the desk job kind of managing people. Now, he’s still running our whole team as far as crew guys go and giving them direction but he’s also out there doing it with them.”
With familiar faces in new roles on his No. 17 team, Stenhouse surely hopes that the changes will help him get to the front more often in Year 3.
Ricky’s Rough Road
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was stout in his back-to-back Xfinity Series title runs in 2011 and 2012. But since jumping to the Sprint Cup Series, good results have been few and far between.
2011 Championship – Two wins, 16 Top-5s, 26 Top-10s, three Poles, 541 Laps Led
2012 Championship – Six Wins, 19 Top-5s, 26-Top-10s, four Poles, 788 Laps Led
SPRINT CUP SERIES
2013 – No wins, one Top-5, three Top-10s, one Pole, 35 Laps Led, 19th in Points
2014 – No wins, one Top-5, five Top-10s, no poles, no laps led, 27th in Points