By Team Ford Racing Correspondent
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enjoys being in the rather unusual spotlight of having a girlfriend -- Danica Patrick -- as part of his competition in NASCAR racing.
The two raced for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup 2013 Rookie of the Year award, an honor Stenhouse claimed.
But Stenhouse, who will start his second full-time Sprint Cup season this month in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion, is much more interested in being famous for other reasons -- like race wins and championship contention.
He figures to be in that loop this season after a 2013 in which he learned a lot but didn’t put up the numbers he had envisioned when the racing began in February.
“The success I thought we were going to have didn’t really happen at all,” said Stenhouse, who won the Nationwide championship for Roush Fenway in 2011 and 2012. “We wanted more top 10s, and we definitely wanted a top-10 sooner.”
Stenhouse finished the season with a single top five (a third at Talladega late in the year) and three top 10s (a 10th at Richmond and an eighth at Chicagoland).
Although Stenhouse had six top-15 runs in the first 25 races, the first top-10 finish arrived at Richmond in race No. 26.
There was some daylight early in the year, however, as he led 26 laps at Kansas in Race 8 before finishing 11th.
“We were in contention to win a couple of races,” he said. “At Kansas early in the year -- after we had that run, I was really excited about the season and where we were headed, but we kind of plateaued and ran level for a while. At the end of the season, we got better. We got some top-10s and a top-five.”
And Stenhouse said he’s depending on that sort of momentum to carry him into the early months of the new season – similar to the impact a strong finish in the 2010 Nationwide season provided for 2011, his first Nationwide championship year.
“Our Nationwide effort in 2010 started off really poorly,” Stenhouse said. “We finished a little stronger, then started 2011 all strong, getting two wins and winning the championship. I think we can continue that trend.
“We’re still trying (in Sprint Cup) to make the big jump and run in the top 10 consistently. And I do think you can take the upswing of the end of the previous year and carry that on to the next season. It’s worked for us before.”
After a shuffling of crew chiefs within RFR during the off-season, Stenhouse opens the new year with a new but familiar face atop the pit wagon. He has been reunited with crew chief Mike Kelley, recreating the team that rolled to big successes in the Nationwide Series. Kelley replaces Scott Graves, who will lead Chris Buescher’s effort for RFR in Nationwide.
“The morale on our team and the chemistry we have is right back to where Mike and I left off in the Nationwide Series,” Stenhouse said. “He’s being a team leader and building the team to where it needs to be.”
Soon, Year Two begins for Stenhouse. He’s looking for big things.