Heading into Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Bristol (Ten.) Motor Speedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, leads the way in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings and stands 21st in the series, overall, points standings. Recently, Stenhouse participated in a weekly NASCAR teleconference to discuss his rookie season, so far. Here’s what he had to say:
Q. Ricky, how would you grade your rookie season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series so far?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Man, I don’t know. It’s been up and down. I would say that we’re right at a C, I think. We’ve got a lot of room for improvement.
We’ve had some strong runs. We’ve had speed. We’ve made good decisions. We haven’t got everything to fall our way to capitalize on those. In these Sprint Cup races, you have to have everything fall in place and you have to be fast every week to get those good finishes you’re looking for. We definitely got a lot of room for improvement. I knew it was going to be tough coming in.
I’m still hoping for that strong finish like we had in our Nationwide Series rookie campaign in 2010 so that we can carry some momentum into next year. Definitely a lot of room for improvement, but we’re working hard at it.
Q. Ricky, Danica comes into the media center nearly every week. I’m curious if you could give your take on battling for Rookie of the Year, and what the dynamic between the two of you is, if you’re keeping track?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: We don’t really talk about it too much. We talk about how our races went, how our cars handled, things like that.
But I don’t even know how many points I have in the Rookie of the Year standings. I’m not even sure how much we’re leading it by.
We just each go out and do our job each and every week, try to capitalize on the good cars that we have, try to get good finishes out of a not-so-good weekend like we did at Watkins Glen.
We don’t keep up with it, talk about the Rookie of the Year. We talk about how the racetracks have changed throughout the weekend, things like that.
Away from the racetrack, we don’t really talk much about racing, period.
Q. How specifically do you plan to use the remainder of the year to get to where you feel like you need to be? You said there have been a lot of positives, a lot of negatives. How do you plan to use these last 13 races?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Yeah, we’re going to use ‘em to obviously try to help Greg get in the Chase. That would be the first thing we need to do, is make sure he gets a spot in the Chase. I’m going to do everything I can on the racetrack to help that, cut him some slack when we’re racing him. That’s very important for Roush Fenway Racing to have two cars in the Chase.
For our team, we’re going to work hard on just making sure that we find that speed, have that communication, that we keep building on what we’ve built so far this year.
I think this past weekend at Michigan was a strong start to that. We’re going back to these racetracks for the second time. This weekend at Michigan, we started 22nd and we drove all the way up to 10th under green flag. I felt really good about the weekend, the way it was going.
We blew a right front, knocked the right front brake caliper line off of it, didn’t have any brakes on it for a while. We were able to finish on the lead lap 19th.
I would say this weekend was a strong start going back to these racetracks for the second time. Just gain some momentum heading into next year, maybe even take some chances on the way we’re calling the races to put ourselves up front and in position to take advantage of good track position and maybe sneak a few top 5s, top 10s out of the end of the season.
That’s really what I was looking for coming into this season. Yeah, I thought we would be running in the top 10 a little more consistently by now. I knew the beginning of the year was going to be a struggle.
I also wanted to finish this season off running competitively, running faster throughout the races, throughout the weekend, at least give ourselves a shot at running in the top 10 more consistently.
I think so far we’ve done that going back to these tracks for the second time. I just want to carry that momentum into next year.
Q. Ricky, with your experience in winning the championships, you probably had even a better idea than most of what the move to Cup was going to be like. You look at some of these younger guys, there’s talk they’ll be moving up to Cup as soon as next year that don’t have as much experience. Even with all the experience you had, what kind of surprises or adjustments have you had to make, even with your background, all the experience you had, in moving to Cup, and what might it be like for somebody that’s younger and hasn’t had as much time or is a little bit less experienced?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: I think you can go a couple of different ways. You jump in a Cup car, you don’t pick up a lot of bad habits from the Nationwide car that don’t work out as well in the Cup car, so it can be a positive.
Also it can be a negative. I learned a lot running the Nationwide Series, running for points, running for a championship, contending for wins, taking a race-winning car, make sure I did just that with it, not get in the wall, not ruin a chance at winning a race, just staying consistent throughout the year. I learned a lot from Nationwide.
But then the biggest thing, I think I didn’t realize this, you have to be so perfect in the Sprint Cup Series. Every driver out there can go win a race if they have the right car, have a fast pit crew and things like that.
The tolerance in getting that setup just right, that perfect setup, is very, very small. It seems like all those teams are so close together that just a little bit off can put you 25th or 20th.
I think I could have a good car in Nationwide and run top 5 or you can have a great car and win. You can have a great car in the Sprint Cup Series and run 15th with it. It’s super competitive. These guys are just really good.
Q. You talk about Nationwide, getting a chance to go for wins, for the championship. How does that experience help even for like a situation for you this year where you haven’t had as many of those opportunities? How do you feel that experience has helped you where maybe somebody else doesn’t have that experience?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Yeah, I think we’ve been really consistent this season. I haven’t put myself in many positions that are going to get us wrecked. We finished every single race this year. We blew a tire at Texas and that took us out of contention of running well. We got crashed at Pocono. We blew a tire this weekend.
I think we’ve been really consistent throughout the year, not taking too many chances at pressing the issue and tearing our car up. That was something that took me a while to learn. It took me forever in the Nationwide car to figure that out.
2011, 2012, running for those championships, every point matters. 10 races into this season, we were close to top 10 in points. We had a wild card spot for a little while. That was just running consistent. We weren’t very fast, we weren’t contending for wins or running top 10, but we were consistent and we were finishing races.
That’s something I learned in 2011, 2012 carrying into this year. I think we’ve gained a ton of experience this year just by finishing these races and being out on the racetrack, something that I feel like I jeopardized in 2010 racing for the Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series. I crashed a lot. I didn’t get the experience I needed. Luckily we got a lot of experience at the end of 2010 that carried us on to 2011, 2012.
But I’m looking at the experience I’m gaining right now. Hopefully it will pay off for next year. Just the consistency that it takes to win a championship is what I brought over to the Cup Series to put us where we are now.
Q. When did you become comfortable in a leadership role? I’ve heard from different young drivers that sometimes it’s a little bit challenging early on in really kind of having that leadership role because you’re working with crew guys who could be the age of your father. How did you learn that and when did you feel comfortable in kind of playing a greater role in the leadership of your team in Nationwide?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Well, obviously success has a lot to do with that, your relationship with your crew chief, with your team owner. I think your crew guys have got to believe in you and look up to you.
The attitude of your team starts with your driver. If you don’t have a positive attitude, your team’s not going to have a positive attitude either. That’s something I also learned in Nationwide throughout the three years I was there. The attitude of the team is reflected by your attitude and how you carry yourself.
With winning races, winning championships, that definitely helped. But that’s what I learned from my father growing up. He runs his own business. He works hard. He’s a leader.
So I bounce a lot of ideas off my dad. I would call him every week. I still call him every week after the races. He’ll pick my brain, help me come up with ideas to express to my team, Jack, my crew chief even now.
But you got to have that good relationship with your crew chief, as well, that you both have respect for each other. When you have ideas, you need to bring them up.
Admitting to your mistakes is one thing that crew guys look up to. I made a lot of mistakes in my Nationwide Series career, even running for championships. But my guys believed in me. That helped breed a confidence in me that I needed to step up and be a leader.
You always have that one guy on the football team, the quarterback, that’s the captain of the ship, that has to go in and take control for their guys to go out and give them all they got.
It’s my career. They’re working on my car. I feel like if I want the best out of them, they need to expect the best out of me. You just kind of feed off each other.
Q. Ricky, you kind of mentioned getting advice from your dad, how important that is. What about people that you’ve looked up to in the NASCAR garage, who has helped you?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: Well, this year in the Sprint Cup Series, Kevin Harvick has been a great friend. Even through Nationwide, we got along really great. We had some great battles in the Nationwide Series running side-by-side for tons of laps, just racing each other hard. So we had a lot of fun doing that and I learned a lot from him paying attention to how he drives. We would talk about that after the race.
Coming over into the Sprint Cup Series, he knows the way you drive these cars different. He’s been giving me a lot of advice throughout the year, backing up my entries, not overdriving the car, overdriving the corner, trying to make these tires do something that they’re not capable of that you pick up from running the Nationwide car with a lot less horsepower.
He’s been probably one of the biggest helps so far this year, giving me pointers, tips. When we’re racing around each other on the racetrack, when we get done, he’ll give me pointers and things that he saw. It could be at the beginning of the race, but even after the race he remembers to come over and tell me. I think that’s pretty cool having Kevin give me that feedback.
Q. As far as advice, what would be your advice for a young person to be successful at any endeavor they would do?
RICKY STENHOUSE, JR.: I mean, I learned everything from my dad. My dad worked hard. He owns his own business, like I said. He works 16, 17 hours a day building engines. We’d go racing on the weekend.
The biggest thing throughout really my whole career is just put 100% effort into it, work hard, respect everyone around you, especially the ones that are working with you and working for you. You got to believe in each other. You just got to go give it all you got.
You can’t get over here in this world, in these series, and expect to just show up to the racetrack and go win every week. You got to put your time in, hang out at the shop, get your crew guys believing in you, work hard for it. It’s not about coming here, going out on the lake every day, then showing up at the plane to go to the racetrack.
You can do it that way, but I don’t think you’ll last very long. You have to put the time and effort into it and really want it because these guys are the best of the best. They’re not out goofing off all the time. They’re putting 100% effort into it.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR