Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: NASCAR's 2010 Nationwide Series Raybestos Rookie of the Year

Jamie Squire / Getty Images for NASCAR
At the beginning of the 2010 season, many people probably thought that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wouldn’t be the one to bring home another Rookie of the Year award for Roush Fenway. There were two other rookies—Brian Scott and Stenhouse’s teammate Colin Braun—who would join him in competing for that award. In the end, it came down to a two-way battle between Stenhouse and Scott, but Stenhouse’s late-season charge left Scott falling short. He is the fifth driver to win top rookie honors in the Nationwide Series for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse didn’t even compete the full season (there were three races he did not run), and he still ended the season as the top rookie.

The 2010 season would mark the second year Stenhouse would get behind the wheel of a Roush Fenway Racing machine. In 2009, he piloted the No. 16 Ford for six races and the No. 17 Ford for one. In those seven starts he had one top 5, two top 10s, and won the pole at Iowa. His average start was 7.3 and his average finish was 23.0. Even in those few races, he showed promise for the 2010 season.

To say he had a rough start to his rookie season would be an understatement. The young Roush Fenway Racing driver kicked the year off with back-to-back DNFs in the No. 16 Ford. He qualified 10th in his first start at Daytona International Speedway, but ended up 36th after being involved in a multi-car crash. The following weekend was almost like déjà vu, where he ended up 39th after being involved in a crash. There’s an old saying that “the third time is the charm,” and for Stenhouse it sort of was. The third race of the year was at Las Vegas, but he barely managed to finish inside the top 30 for that race. He improved for the fourth race of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he led four laps, but ended up 25th due to a crash that sent him behind the wall for a short period of time. He had five DNFs in the first 12 races, and his DNF at Charlotte in the spring would be the last one he would get.

Veteran crew chief Mike Kelley and champion spotter Mike Calinoff, spotter for Matt Kenseth in the Sprint Cup Series, were both very patient while working with Stenhouse. They knew he had what it took to run well, and they knew that as a rookie, Stenhouse would have a lot of learning to do. While his team stood behind him, it still didn’t stop the negative comments from surfacing.

His poor finishes and his seemingly endless streak of being involved of crashes had the media making comments on whether he would even be with Roush Fenway by the time the season ended. More than once, the commentators would discuss Stenhouse’s performance and make jokes about him. It was bad enough that he was struggling, but the media was dogging him, too.

For the beginning of the season, Stenhouse found himself in the position of having to qualify on time due to not being in the top 30 in points. It wasn’t exactly the position any rookie wants to find himself in, especially when that rookie is driving for one of NASCAR’s biggest teams. Originally, Stenhouse was supposed to run the full season, but due to lack of sponsorship for some races, he found himself having to sit out while another driver got behind the wheel.

CitiFinancial sponsored him for a majority of the season, but there were five races where he had to drive an unsponsored car. Eventually a second sponsor, Blackwell Angus Beef, signed on.

This year, it was announced that the Nationwide Series would be running a new car for four races (the new car will be used full-time in the 2011 season). The first of those races was the Daytona race in July. For Stenhouse, it was a race that had him showing he had what it took to remain in the series. In the first race in the new car, Stenhouse finished 3rd, earning his career-best finish. It was a race that had Calinoff telling Stenhouse, “You drove like a champion today.” That race marked the halfway point of the season, and from that race on, Stenhouse gained momentum in incredible fashion.

One of Stenhouse’s best races of the season is undoubtedly the fall race at Texas Motor Speedway. He qualified 7th, and ran inside the top 10 for much of the race. He drove like a veteran driver against the Cup Series drivers, including teammate Carl Edwards, to get up front and lead for 27 laps.

Courtesy of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s official Facebook page
While Brian Scott had been leading in the Rookie of the Year battle for much of the year, once Stenhouse took it over toward the end of the season, he never looked back. The Nationwide Series rookie battle came down to the wire at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Stenhouse leading Brian Scott by just a few points. It would literally come down to one having to finish ahead of the other to win Rookie of the Year. While both drivers ran well in the final race, Stenhouse, as Calinoff said many times this season, “drove like a champion.” He finished 4th, well ahead of Brian Scott. Stenhouse had come from 35 points down to take the lead in the rookie battle. No other driver in NASCAR’s history in any series had ever overcome such a point deficit to become the Rookie of the Year.

Following the race at Homestead, Stenhouse had this to say about earning top rookie honors: “It’s special to win the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. It is a huge honor. We came back from adversity early in the season. I wish we could have started the year where we are right now. This is good momentum going in the offseason for this whole team. Jack Roush has done an awesome job with this team. It has been a fun year and I learned a lot.”

Stenhouse ended the season with three top 5s, eight top 10s, an average starting position of 14.2 and an average finish of 19.4. He definitely turned what could have been a terrible season into a season he won’t soon forget. Never has a rookie had to fight so hard to earn the title of Raybestos Rookie of the Year.

----------
I’m a huge Stenhouse, Jr. fan, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him come out on top when all was said and done. To Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. … I say hold your head high. You proved a lot of people wrong this season, and left many of them taking back what they said about you. To not even run every race and still overcome a big point deficit is something that not many drivers could accomplish. Congratulations on becoming the 2010 Nationwide Series Raybestos Rookie of the Year! It is an honor you truly deserve after all the hard work you and your team did throughout the season to make such an impressive comeback.

0 comments :

Post a Comment