Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. started the year an example the pitfalls of NASCAR driver development. He ended it the role model of how to suck it up, refocus, and learn how to do everything right.
The problem is, overcoming adversity no longer guarantees him a future in the sport.
It’s a nice story within Roush-Fenway Racing, the resurgence of a soft-spoken and highly talented 23-year-old who now holds the title of Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year. It was a remarkable story of perseverance, one most drivers might not even get a chance to write after eight – yes, eight – crashes in his first dozen starts of 2010 left his career hanging in the balance. When I saw the No. 6 crew at the eighth of those wrecks – Charlotte – they were standing dejectedly in front of a totaled CitiFinancial Ford, half-heartedly fixing the effort while their driver looked like he’d just been hit by a freight train. To a man, it was a collective group of people who appeared to this observer they were better served waving the white flag.
A tumultuous few weeks within that organization followed, Roush cutting the schedules of both Stenhouse and fellow rookie Colin Braun while releasing Braun’s crew chief Eddie Pardue, canned after a reported strip club incident amongst his personnel at Daytona. With other prospects entering the fold, including former Kyle Busch protégée Brian Ickler it appeared a permanent change was in the works. But in the process of being pulled from the seat, something happened in the head of a driver who’d struggled to focus all season long.
“I felt like it turned around at Loudon,” said Stenhouse, a 16th-place result which later served as a small stepping stone towards long-term success. “The finish didn’t show it, but we had a really good racecar. Ran up in the top 10, and felt like we were fast enough to run in the top 5 there. The following week at Daytona, to come home 3rd in the Mustang, that was kind of the turning point in the season. That’s where everything came together and clicked.”
Boy, did it ever. Overcoming a record 35-point deficit to Brian Scott in the rookie race, Stenhouse closed the year with 11 top-15 finishes in his final sixteen starts behind the wheel. A driver whose rollercoaster season had initially caused tensions within the crew now won him over with a personable, mature attitude that showed both on the track and off it. How good were things at the end of the year? A driver whose quirk is wearing cowboy boots daily got his whole crew to wear them over the entire weekend at Homestead.
“A lot of them had to go buy the lasso, and their feet were hurting all day because it was the first time they wore ‘em,” he said. “They didn’t realize you have to work them in, so they learned a little bit today about wearing boots. I’m just glad the team was that cool and that behind me to be able to do that and have a good time at Roush-Fenway Racing.”
But the question now, sadly enough, is how much longer they’ll be together. Two of the last four rookies of the year haven’t come up with a full-time ride the following season, including former Roush-Fenway star Danny O’Quinn. And like so many other “young guns” in a sport that’s struggled to find financial footing as of late, Stenhouse enters the offseason without a sponsor and no guarantee Roush will run him in 2011.
“Looking back at Richmond and the CotT Mustang races, the new cars,” he explained, inadvertently trying selling himself in the answer. “We seemed to run really strong with those, and to look forward to next year, running every single weekend, I think we can have that in our corner that we ran well.”
But the confines of this Nationwide garage isn’t defined by either potential or performance. Instead, it’s the popularity inside a boardroom of men in suits that determines who races and who sits on the bench.
“I feel like Jack is really positive with us, especially when the season’s ended, and as dedicated as he is he’ll probably find a way for us to run,” said the youngster, refusing to dwell on the possible nightmare scenario of unemployment he’s been through before – the man sat out but for handful of races last season after running fourth in the 2008 ARCA championship. “That’s what I’ve got to hope for, and he’s been a great owner to run for. I feel like he’s going to do his best to do it. Being out of the seat really hurt us, with the improvements that we made, but overall we learned a lot this year so we can move on and work on stuff for next year.
“Hopefully, we can secure some sponsorship to do this thing full-time again.”
And so it goes. In past year, this story used to have a guaranteed fairy tale ending. Now? It’s a suspenseful thriller, lives hanging in the balance as a harsh real world lesson is learned: doing good work as a grownup doesn’t always automatically mean you get rewarded.