Previews, predictions and stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the No. 17 team
There was no shortage of hyperbole from Roush Fenway Racing during a pair of announcements last season about the future of the team’s No. 17 Ford.
First, there was the use of the word “historic” in describing Matt Kenseth’s former ride. Then, the team tossed out “championship-caliber” when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was formally announced as the team’s newest NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver.
And why not? Roush Fenway’s last decade with Kenseth at the helm has been a story of largely unbridled success. The winning car in two of the last four Daytona 500s has been adorned with the No. 17, and Kenseth gave team co-owner Jack Roush his first Cup Series title with the team in 2003. The No. 17 missed only one Chase for the Sprint Cup (2009) and staked claim to 24 checkered flags in Kenseth’s tenure.
But Kenseth, feeling like Roush wasn’t seriously pursuing a contract extension, announced early last season that he was moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. Further investigation indicates that the two sides may have had some crossed signals, but the move stood, and Roush needed to replace a driver who had become synonymous with the organization.
Here’s the wheel, Ricky.
Stenhouse, fresh from consecutive Nationwide Series titles — the second of which he celebrated with about the same revelry as a dental visit — seems to be all business in his move to the Sprint Cup Series. At least he was saying all of the right things at the conclusion of 2012. “To be a teammate to Carl (Edwards) and Greg (Biffle) is going to be a lot of fun on the Cup side,” Stenhouse says. “I will be leaning on those guys quite a bit to get these cars figured out. We have had success in the Nationwide Series, but it will be a tough road ahead.”
Ask any veteran: Racing in the Sprint Cup Series comes with no guarantee of success (Exhibit A: Edwards, Carl; 2012) and plenty of guaranteed frustration through a grueling 36-race schedule. Even Joey Logano — the last young driver to get a first crack in NASCAR’s division with a top team — has missed the Chase in each of the five seasons that he’s been eligible despite the “Sliced Bread” nickname and top equipment from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Stenhouse, however, differs a bit from Logano in that his path to Sprint Cup wasn’t nearly as pre-ordained. Sponsorship dollars were always a struggle during his early time in Roush’s Nationwide program, and the road to on-track success was hardly smooth. During one memorable race weekend at Iowa in 2010, Stenhouse crashed both his primary and backup cars before the race even started.
But since that disastrous showing, Stenhouse has eight Nationwide wins to his credit and has built a reputation of not standing down from veteran competition — not too dissimilar from NASCAR’s most recent Sprint Cup champion.
“Ricky … is going to make a statement in this business,” Roush says. “He is at the head of his class, this generation of rookies coming through.”
But just as Logano and other rookies have faced spells of annoyance and adversity in their first seasons at NASCAR’s highest level, Stenhouse should expect the same. He’ll be in solid equipment — the best available in the Ford camp — but will have a crew chief in Scott Graves with limited race-calling experience. Graves has been a big part of Roush Fenway’s research and development work on the 2013 Fusion body style and also called three of Stenhouse’s four Sprint Cup starts in 2012.
The best finish for the team came in a 12th-place run at Dover in September. Stenhouse’s personal best in a Sprint Cup car actually came in 2011 when he subbed for an ailing Trevor Bayne in the Coca-Cola 600 and battled to an impressive 11th-place finish.
“It will be our job to put him in the best equipment possible, as well as to guide him through the learning curves that are part of his rookie season,” Roush says.
And then there’s the 300-pound gorilla in the hauler: Stenhouse’s romantic relationship with Danica Patrick. Again, both drivers have said all the right things and even jumped out in front of the story before the general public was made aware of it. Can two drivers competing for wins and the Rookie of the Year title at the highest level of North American motorsports do so while in a relationship? Time will tell — the only certainty being that the couple will be pelted with questions from the media for quite some time.
Stenhouse, 25, has spent nearly three-fourths of his life pressing accelerators and turning steering wheels. The Mississippi native will stand out from the blur of the Sprint Cup garage thanks to the 10-gallon hat he’s grown fond of. But with stout RFR equipment and a demonstrated ability, the phrase “all hat and no cattle” shouldn’t be applicable — even with the typical ups and downs of a rookie season.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
The defending two-time Nationwide Series champion will finally make his full-time debut in the Cup Series in 2013.
“Ricky is a very good race car driver — he's proven he’s very fast, but that has also bit him in the butt before,” one crew chief says. “He’s won the Nationwide title twice in-a-row, so he knows how to win titles, but getting to that level on the Cup side takes a different set of circumstances. We’ll have to see if he can lead his team to that level in a Cup car. … The one problem that could bite Ricky, although it will probably depend on his success the first year in the Cup Series, is his over-confidence. He has developed an attitude over the last year that can be kind of snobby. If he wins a few times and makes the Chase his first year, that could get out of hand.”
“Stenhouse suddenly has a lot to balance in his life,” a media member notes. “Both on and off the track. I expect him to have the typical rookie season, full of peaks and valleys, but he has a lot going for him from a resources perspective. The one thing that nags at me is the crew chief decision. I thought (Jimmy) Fennig would have made the perfect taskmaster for him, but I guess Carl (Edwards) pulled an internal power play and won.”
Looking at Checkers: Probably not going to happen this year, but as with any true Roushian, he’s good on the intermediates.
Pretty Solid Pick: Find the right push, and he can win on a plate track, as his buddy Trevor Bayne can attest.
Good Sleeper Pick: Will be a popular sleeper pick at a number of places in the second half of the season.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: May get pushed around on the short tracks for a while.
Insider Tip: Stenhouse looks like he’s going to be a good one, but the climb from Nationwide to Cup is steep. Give him time.
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