Can Stenhouse, Mike Kelley, duplicate Nationwide success in Cup Series?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. concluded what most would consider a typical rookie season at 19th in the final Sprint Cup standings in 2013. While many expect continued gains, the rising sophomore is caught square in the muck of mid-major teams that will fight tooth and nail to gain footing in the points range just outside of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Stenhouse won the 2013 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award after predictably edging out girlfriend and competitor Danica Patrick. With each of his three top 10s scored in the year’s final 11 races, it appeared that driver development was right on track. Yet based on the reaction of Roush Fenway Racing team officials following the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November, Stenhouse’s team underachieved to the point of necessary change.
Just two days after 2013’s final checkered flag, Stenhouse’s crew chief, Scott Graves, was demoted — RFR coined it a reassignment, but don’t be misled as to what it actually was — to Nationwide Series duty on Chris Buescher’s No. 60 car in 2014. Moving to Stenhouse’s Cup pit box is Mike Kelley from RFR’s Nationwide Series program. It was a familiar move — most likely made at Stenhouse’s request — as Kelley worked with him during his two Nationwide titles in 2011 and ‘12.
“As with any season,” says Jack Roush, “we always sit down at the end of the year and evaluate where we are, what we have and what we think are the best options to put our teams in the best position to compete for wins and championships.”
Roush never revealed what exactly led to the end-of-season upheaval, but Stenhouse’s season-long statistics may help with the why. Still, the No. 17 was showing improvement with those three top 10s and its jump from 23rd to 19th in points during the final 12 races.
Stenhouse cited past success with Kelley and improved chemistry as two reasons he was excited about the move away from Graves after only one season. It’s a move that also begs the question: Why wasn’t Kelley hired in the first place?
The crew chief change is one that certainly leaves Stenhouse in a bit of a sticky situation should he not show marked improvement. After all, a driver only gets so many management changes before the finger of blame starts to point at the guy behind the steering wheel. But the move also seems to indicate that the team expects much more from the 26-year-old driver.
Stenhouse admirably finished every race in 2013, but he lagged far, far behind teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in critical statistical areas. Stenhouse had only three top-10 finishes compared to Biffle’s 13 and Edwards’ 16. He only could muster a single top-5 run and struggled with the sport’s 26th-best average running position.
Those numbers played a large role in why Stenhouse was the only one of the three RFR drivers not to make the Chase. In fact, he really was never close, despite running a program that ran top seven in points the previous year with Matt Kenseth at the helm.
Expect Stenhouse’s best chance for success this season to come on the sport’s 1.5- and 2-mile tracks. During his Nationwide career, 17 of his 39 career top-5 finishes came at those ovals as well as five of his eight wins in that series.
Stenhouse didn’t win in his first season, and he rarely ever came close. For Roush, that had to be a bit of a surprise considering Stenhouse’s runaway success against the sport’s second tier. After all, the last RFR driver to win rookie honors — Kenseth in 2000 — went to Victory Lane in his 12th start of his first full-time season.
Is it fair to compare Kenseth, the sport’s champion in his fourth full-time season, to the still new Stenhouse? Of course not, and it’s also important to note that the Roush organization is down a few pegs from its late 1990s to early 2000s heyday.
But Jack Roush didn’t hire Stenhouse just to wear cowboy hats, date another driver and run mid-pack.
If driver-crew chief chemistry yields fruit, paired with the typical improvement that comes with experience, Stenhouse will take steps forward this year. Just don’t expect those steps to be big enough to launch the No. 17 into title contention.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He is the Rookie of the Year, he’s a two time champion in a national touring series, and he went through his turmoil at Roush and it turned him into a better driver,” a rival team member points out. “He gradually improved over the course of last season with his average finish climbing over the second half of the year consistently.”
Another says: “He is still dating Danica, so there is always going to be that cloud over his head even though it seems to have died down. He’s in a Ford, which was a bit of a curse last season. Roush seems to be behind the rest of the power teams, so it may take some time before he can run with the Hendrick cars.”
“It’s my understanding that the crew chief change was Stenhouse’s call,” a media member says. “I think he wanted (Jimmy) Fennig two seasons ago, but Carl (Edwards) pulled rank — and I imagine Ford wanted its best driver paired with its best coach. That said, Stenhouse has a guy (Mike Kelley) he’s enjoyed a lot of success with in the Nationwide Series. And Roush will give them all the time in the world to make it work on the Cup level. I’m looking forward to seeing what the duo can do at the premier level, to be honest.”
Looking at Checkers: It could happen. He seems to have an affinity for those ’tweeners like Richmond and Phoenix.
Pretty Solid Pick: Like a good little Roushian, he looks at home on the intermediates — and he certainly has the teachers in Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’ll refrain from making a Danica joke and call your attention to his third-place run at Talladega last fall.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Still learning (and earning respect) on the shorter, more physical tracks like Loudon, Martinsville and the roadies.
Insider Tip: Will Mike Kelley’s return to his pit box ignite a six-win season, which the duo accomplished on the Nationwide circuit in 2012? Not immediately, but you will see some near-misses this year — and possibly a breakthrough.
No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
Sponsors: Nationwide Insurance/Zest/Fifth Third Bank Ford
Owner: Jack Roush/John Henry
Crew Chief: Mike Kelley
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015+
Best points finish: 19th (2013)
Hometown: Olive Branch, Miss.
Born: Oct. 2, 1987
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro