Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continues to improve and impress

[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”227″][/media-credit]In a sport that’s constantly changing, one thing’s starting to remain the same. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is dominating the Nationwide Series.

The defending champion and current point leader has been setting the pace early in the season. Picking up where he left off in 2011 and had it not been for a last lap crash in Daytona while racing for the win, Stenhouse might be even further ahead.

Before Saturday’s History 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway he was sitting pretty with nine top 10 finishes in 10 races. In the last nine races Stenhouse hadn’t finished outside the top six.

It’s what’s helped him storm into victory lane three times, including his third consecutive at Iowa to remain undefeated, quickly quieting the talks of Elliott Sadler’s hot start and championship hopes. If anyone wants to win races and the big trophy, they’ll have to go through the Mississippi native.

What an incredible rise for Stenhouse, whose story has been well documented. In the car, crashing the car, out of the car and then boom, it suddenly clicked. Once back in the car it was as if a different driver was behind the wheel.

A 16th place point finish in 2010 and Rookie of the Year honors to winner and champion the following year. Now he’s looking to become the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-2005 to win back-to-back titles.

As the season continues to progress, Stenhouse continues to improve. He’s constantly thinking and thinking like a veteran, wondering how the team could get better. While leading two weeks ago in Iowa he seemed to be upset when telling crew chief Mike Kelley that something had to be done about the grille opening.

His No. 6 Ford Fusion was running hot even in clean air. However, Kelley said that Stenhouse had what he had and they’d have to deal with. No, said a calm Stenhouse, for future reference to be worked on back at the shop.

Team owner Jack Roush has long made smart decisions for his company. It’s why he’s won so many races and championships across the three national series. But pairing Stenhouse with the veteran Kelley will prove to be one of his best.

Kelley has an impressive resume of his own, working with many different Roush drivers and finding victory lane with a few of them. He’s the perfect fit for the young Stenhouse, who never fails to mention how he keeps him calm, cool and collected.

Reining him back in when he gets too far ahead of himself, refocusing him on what needs his attention. Every driver needs that voice in their ear, the person who knows exactly what to say and when to say. Stenhouse has plenty of that on his team, from spotter Mike Calinoff high atop the roof, who continues to coach him every week to Kelley, making the calls atop the pit box.

The belief and confidence they have in each other has become a major part in their success. When Kelley sings Stenhouse’s praises and how he’ll become a superstar in the sport, he genuinely believes in his driver.

The longer the two are together the more they’ll accomplish. There’s plenty of racing left in 2012, yet it’s never too early to start talking about the future. Stenhouse’s will be bright and regardless if he wins his second NNS title this season, a case could be made that he should be going Cup race next season.

Of course sponsorship will determine his plans. It almost kept Stenhouse from defending his NNS title this year but Roush stayed committed to getting him on track. Now he needs to find a way to not only keep him with his organization but keep him racing and moving forward.

The worst thing would be for Stenhouse to stall out and not climb up the ladder, as he should be. Clearly talented enough to win it’s a shame that a company hasn’t come along and attached themselves to Stenhouse for the long haul.

Bass Pro Shops has done so with Austin Dillon and OneMain Financial has to Elliott Sadler. And if there is ever such a thing as the complete package or a sponsors dream, wouldn’t Stenhouse fit that bill?

Winner? Becoming a regular occurrence. Champion? Didn’t take long to knock that off the list. Decent reputation? So far so good, he hasn’t gotten into a fight with anyone or become famous for his radio highlights.

And Stenhouse continues to soar in popularity with the fans and there are no tougher critics than the fans. But Stenhouse has a lot of support.

It could be because he’s the ultimate success story or the fact that he can go toe-to-toe with the Sprint Cup drivers. Either way Stenhouse lets everyone know that he’s a contender on a weekly basis.

Just further proof of how far Stenhouse has already come. When things started to go wrong in the past, he openly admitted to letting it bother him during the race and how he would be unable to let it go. Refocusing and earning finishes they were capable of became difficult.

Now though, Stenhouse uses every opportunity to learn, filing information away for later. Thinking smarter, acting smarter and becoming a dangerous threat. Pushing the car to its limit but never crossing the line. Battling back to win even when he felt the car wasn’t good enough or needed too many adjustments.

Kurt Busch, 2004 NSCS champion, said after Iowa that Stenhouse was getting really good. Many others have echoed the same sentiment, most likely after Stenhouse has gotten the best of them. Mark Martin did as much early this year in Las Vegas, calling it a beat down.

And so, Stenhouse continues to beat down those who doubted him. Those who try to dethrone him. But he’s the real deal and continues to show that he’s going to be in this sport for a while to come. This time two years ago, that didn’t seem likely or realistic for Stenhouse.

So for all those still on the fence about him, still searching for a driver to root for or just want to see one of the little guys to succeed, no better time to start paying attention. Because Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s story is one that continues to be written and it’s one that will go down as one of the best in NASCAR history.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com


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