According to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. he’s more focused this year.
Thats good to hear since it should help eliminate a possible repeat of what Stenhouse did last season. He wrecked, a lot and was taken out of the car by team owner Jack Roush. His second chance led to things starting to click for the young driver and he ended the season as one of the hottest drivers in the Nationwide Series.
[media-credit name=”Barry Albert” align=”alignright” width=”290″][/media-credit]It’s carried over into 2011 and following his fourth place finish in Saturday’s Royal Purple 300 at the Auto Club Speedway moved him to the series points lead. To think that just a year ago, Stenhouse could have been just weeks away from losing his ride, to now leading the series point standings and turning quite a few heads.
“That is good,” said Stenhouse on Saturday, “because I think last time I was here they were talking about me for a different reason.”
Indeed. Now the talk has turned to what accomplishments he might compile this year. Much like Bristol last weekend, Stenhouse was able to drive his No. 6 Roush Ford to the front and lead the race. At Auto Club Speedway he did so by driving past both teammate Carl Edwards and eventual winner Kyle Busch with 50 laps to go.
While he would lose the lead a few laps later, it came only after Edwards had to work for it. Stenhouse was able to pull along the No. 60 of Edwards who said he could see Stenhouse driving the wheels off his car and was having a hard time getting to his bumper.
“It is good to be up front and leading,” said Stenhouse.
“These guys work hard every week. Our Mustangs have been fast. We finally got the finish we deserved this week. We feel like we have had top five’s the first four races and let it slip away with mistakes we made or just the way it worked out with fuel or cautions. It was a good day for us and we will carry this momentum into Texas.”
Stenhouse said he wasn’t looking forward to California since he doesn’t particularly run well there. Now though, he’s looking forward to Texas and the rest of the season. The NNS takes a week off as the Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville next weekend.
Stenhouse and 42 other NNS drivers will get back to racing at Texas two weeks from now. The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 will be no different than most NNS races and the first five of the 2011 season – Cup drivers will be in the field and most likely in victory lane.
They’ll get majority of the attention but so will Stenhouse being the point leader. He says he knew his team was capable of competing like this since Daytona and credits many things for the turnaround. They have new cars this year and they’re working closely with the engineering group from the organization’s Cup program.
And like many Ford drivers, Stenhouse says the new FR9 engines have been awesome. Plus, keeping the same team as last year has made things easy.
But what his point lead really comes through is NASCAR’s new pick a series rule. Cup drivers can no longer run for the NNS championship and don’t receive points; they can still take home the trophies though much to the chagrin of many in the sport.
When Busch won Saturday it was his third of the NNS season in just five races. Tony Stewart and Mark Martin won the other two races. The question has already been raised of whether the NNS champion of 2011 will be winless.
Stenhouse and other NNS regulars are doing their best to avoid that and Stenhouse says he likes the new format.
“I think Nationwide Insurance has done an awesome job of making our own identity,” he said.
“I feel like looking at the races, I don’t know if it is the new points system getting in our minds that a Nationwide regular is going to win the championship, but it seems like the regulars have been in the top five and running strong. I think it has upped the competition and everyone is trying a little harder.”
Not only has the other competitors up their game but Stenhouse says he has as well. Running with the Cup drivers, as he was on Saturday, makes him race harder because of how high the bar has been set.
He’s enjoying racing against them and is learning a lot too.
Stenhouse hopes things continue going as they are and while he says he hasn’t begun to think about points or whom he’s racing for the championship, he did say it’s nice to be leading and hopes he can begin to open it up.