Rough start for rookie Stenhouse
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. could have been packing for a trip to exurban Des Moines, preparing to add a fourth Nationwide Series win in six tries at the .875-mile bullring that is Iowa Speedway. But the two-time-not-defending champion of NASCAR's second-tier developmental series has moved on to higher corn and the deeper talent pool of Sprint Cup.
And, not surprisingly, it's been difficult.
"I'm finding out real quick that just because you run good in a Nationwide car doesn't mean you're going to run good in a Cup car," he said. "I think that's kind of been frustrating because I have confidence going into some of these tracks and we don't get the same result, or even half the result."
Within the process has been a lack of familiarity, and the kind of unsatisfying results he's not experienced with such frequency since his tumultuous first two Nationwide seasons with Roush Fenway Racing in 2009-10, when his unproductive penchant for crashing cars prompted owner Jack Roush to briefly replace him in 2010.
But at Pocono Raceway this weekend, yet another track on which he has not competed, lies the path to the type of success that earned him his spot in NASCAR's big leagues.
"I didn't think it was going to be easy. I didn't come in thinking we would run top-10 right away, but I did think by the end of the season we would be doing that," said Stenhouse, who is tied for 14th in driver points after 13 races. "The margin for error is way smaller now. Obviously, there's a lot of good equipment, and I feel like the best drivers, if you get your car good, you think you're a top-20. If you get your car great, it's a top-10 to 15th and a really, really great car is a top-10. It doesn't take much to get out of the top 15 or top 10 and move back. It's just crazy."
Though Stenhouse considers his team "underachieving," he said he understands the circumstances. He is, after all, a rookie who has made 10 first starts at new tracks in the first 13 races, is working with a crew chief in Scott Graves who is away from a research and development role and full bore in the competitive arena for the first time, and simply put, he's competing with a stronger concentration of competitive drivers.
Knowing that he progressed from briefly losing his seat in Nationwide to winning two titles there is heartening, however, in that his Cup launch has so far been less eventful.
"When I look back at it, it hasn't been that bad. So there is a positive to it," he said of the season so far. "If we can progress that far, from Nationwide and winning two championships, the way we started out there, if we can take what we've done this year and turn it in, I think it'll be a lot better. The level of where we're starting is a little bit better. We're finishing races better, giving ourselves opportunities to get better and get experience and I think that's what it took in Nationwide. The end of 2010 I finally got enough experience because I wasn't crashing cars because I was running more races, and that's what we're doing right now.
"We're running races, we're finishing them and we're just trying to make our cars the best we can, and it lets me gain more experience throughout the race. It's so much to learn when you move up to the major leagues. It's almost like you're playing minor league baseball and you've got a couple guys who throw a 95-, 97-mph fastball, but when you get to the major leagues, everybody does. It's just a whole different world."
An 11th-place finish at Kansas Speedway, Stenhouse said, illuminated how his team can function and how the collaborative efforts with his veteran teammates can help. Stenhouse qualified third and finished 11th in what were career and co-career highs, respectively, in both categories.
"We've got to be able to finish these things off. We've got to show up to the racetrack with a little bit better car instead of having to work at it to get that good race car," he said. "If we start a little closer it makes the whole weekend a little bit smoother. We started with a fast car at Kansas and we were able to keep it fast, qualify up front, lead laps there late and had a car that could win.
"I think I've made mistakes. We've made mistakes on pit road. We've made setup mistakes going into the race. As a whole team we've got to get better."
Though Stenhouse entered the season as a two-time Nationwide champion, his Cup experience was deceptively sparse for an organization that currently fields three teams -- but as recently as 2011 four teams -- at NASCAR's top level. He entered the season with five combined starts in 2011-12, his best finish -- 11th -- in his debut sub-letted to the Wood Brothers in the Coca-Cola 600 in 2011.
"I still don't feel like in those races before this season I ever really ran very well," he asserted. "We just got decent finishes out of them."
Though he had raced at every venue so far this season -- except Martinsville -- at some point in his career in Nationwide, he eagerly anticipates the return trips in a Cup car.
"Going back, I hope that we have a better starting point," he said. "I think that's kind of right now where we're struggling. We don't have that starting point figured out because for one, Scott hasn't been a crew chief until this year on the Cup side and until this year I haven't been to the racetrack in a Cup car yet. So we don't have that starting point. We're starting to figure them out a little bit at a time. … I think by the end of the season we can get there."