Stenhouse Jr. finishes 4th, leaves Auto Club Speedway as Nationwide Series points leader

Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR
After earning top rookie honors in the Nationwide Series last year, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. entered the 2011 season with two main goals: earn his first career win and make a run for the championship. He hasn’t gotten a win yet, but in the early part of this season he is proving he has what it takes to be a championship contender.

On Friday, Stenhouse Jr. felt confident he had a great car for the running of the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway. Thanks to a good qualifying effort, the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Mustang took the green flag from the 12th position on Saturday. In the opening laps, Stenhouse Jr. dropped back a few spots. On lap 7, the caution flag waved for debris from the No. 28 of Derrike Cope. Stenhouse Jr., along with a few others, opted to pit under the caution, and once the race restarted on lap 11, he quickly drove his way back up through the field. On lap 17, he was battling the No. 22 of Brad Keselowski for the 6th position while driving a car that had become tight through the center of the turns. He slowly began to drop back as the handling became a small problem.

Despite the handling issues, no adjustments were made to the No. 6 Ford when Stenhouse Jr. pitted for four tires and fuel under the caution brought out by the No. 41 of Jennifer Jo Cobb spinning out on lap 18. He restarted 12th and was running around that position when the No. 66 of Steven Wallace got into the left-rear quarter panel of the No. 6 Ford. There was no damage to the No. 6 Ford but the same could not be said for Wallace, who spun through the grass to bring out the caution.

Following the restart, Stenhouse Jr. began to move back toward the top ten. He was running 10th on lap 46, and continued to move toward the front. Green flag stops began on lap 62, but the caution flag waved one lap later as the right-front tire blew on the No. 81 of Blake Koch. Stenhouse Jr. pitted under the caution for four tires, fuel, and a few adjustments. He restarted in the 7th position on lap 69, and was running 5th just 20 laps later, battling the No. 16 of his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne. The caution came out again on lap 93 when the No. 51 of Jeremy Clements hit the wall, and Stenhouse Jr. once again hit pit road. The race restarted on lap 96, and just three laps later, Stenhouse Jr. took the lead. He held onto the lead until lap 108, when the No. 60 of Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards got by him. He dropped back to 4th a few laps later, and reported his car was a little tight off of turn two, but otherwise it was fine. None of the leaders had enough fuel to make it to the end, so drivers immediately began to decide when the best time to pit would be as the end of the 150-lap race began to close in. Stenhouse Jr. pitted with 17 laps remaining for four tires and fuel. He left pit road still in the 4th position. In the closing laps, the No. 6 Ford was the fastest car on the track, but the field was so spread out that Stenhouse Jr. never had the chance to get back out front. He finished 4th and is now first in the standings, six points ahead of Jason Leffer.

“I probably ran it too hard. I ran it really hard to get to the lead and pass [Kevin] Harvick, Kyle [Busch], and Carl [Edwards] there, and I was just running really really hard. I probably should’ve backed off and just ran a consistent pace, and maybe we would’ve been a little bit better at the end.” Stenhouse Jr. said following the race. “But you know, it sounds like we needed to be over there ringing the bell. That was kind of cool. Hopefully, we’ll get there one day. We got three Nationwide champions in front of us so it was a good day for us.”

The No. 6 team was sitting 32nd in the standings following the 5th race in 2010. Five races into the 2011 season, the team is first. Stenhouse Jr. and his team know the season is far from over, and they will go to Texas in two weeks in hopes of continuing to build on the momentum they’ve gained since leaving Daytona in February.
Stenhouse Jr. finishes 4th, leaves Auto Club Speedway as Nationwide Series points leader Stenhouse Jr. finishes 4th, leaves Auto Club Speedway as Nationwide Series points leader Reviewed by Whitney R. on Sunday, March 27, 2011 Rating: 5