Disappointment isn't an emotion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is used to feeling on the race track. In seasons where he competed in every race on the schedule, from the ARCA Racing Series to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, he's ended with a top-10 average finish. In 2011 and 2012, Stenhouse took home the Nationwide Series championship.
So by the time he had finished the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season with an average finish of 18.9, Stenhouse had become familiar with disappointment for perhaps the first time in his racing career.
"It sucked," Stenhouse candidly admitted. "You know, last year was the first year I didn't win a race in my career of racing, from the time I was 6.
"? But I think if you take a look at it, a lot of these guys have been working a long time to set their foundation in the Sprint Cup Series, to reach the level they are at. Yeah, some come in and really dominate right off the bat, have that success; some have to build on it."
While in the Nationwide Series, it was Stenhouse who dominated relatively quickly. On the path to his back-to-back championships, he nabbed eight wins, 35 top-fives and 52 top-10s in his two title campaigns. That success didn't follow the Nationwide champion to NASCAR's premier series, where he was faced with new challenges.
In addition to driving against the best in stock car racing, the rookie was getting used to the more powerful Generation-6 car, a new crew chief in Scott Graves and interest in his relationship with fellow driver Danica Patrick. A best finish of 11th in the first 25 races of the season indicates just how much the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing team had to learn.
"I think across the board we were all disappointed last year at our results," Stenhouse said. "I definitely wasn't disappointed in the effort that our guys put in last year; they put a ton of effort in, we just didn't see those results. But I think we looked at what we needed to look at, saw what we needed to improve, and I think we're working really hard this offseason, the guys are really pumped up and I think our work's gonna pay off sooner than later now."
The team's hard work started showing results at the end of last season. Things began to change at Atlanta, where Stenhouse took home the Coors Light Pole award. A week later, Stenhouse notched his first top-10 of the season at Richmond, the final race of the regular season. The following week, he had an eighth-place finish at Chicagoland, the first race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Something was starting to click. The rhythm the group had found carried them to a third-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway. The crew was more consistently giving its driver a setup he was comfortable in, and the results were starting to show. Yet there was one comfort Stenhouse was without last season: His championship-winning Nationwide Series crew chief, Mike Kelley -- though Kelley was never far from Stenhouse's ear.
"I don't think -- from the time that we started running together in Nationwide in 2010 -- I don't think there's been a day that we haven't talked," Stenhouse said. "Even last year, I talked to him every single day, we texted every day, after every race we would call each other. If him and Trevor (Bayne) had a bad race, he'd call me; if I had a bad race, I'd call him. We never lost that chemistry that we had."
When it came time to reflect on the season and consider improvements, bringing Kelley up from Trevor Bayne's No. 6 Nationwide Series entry was a frequent offseason topic of conversation.
"What we try to do at the end of the year is sit down and look at what would be the best situation, and we started with the drivers and worked through the crew chiefs and on to the crew members and tried to understand what they were looking for," said Robbie Reiser, the general manager for Roush Fenway Racing. "It's no different than if you have a Peyton Manning and you've got to build a team around him. It's the same situation when it comes to the driver.
"So we sat down as a group and looked at what made him the most comfortable, what would build a team that they felt they could go out and win with, and Mike's name kept coming up, and we just decided to make that change."
That chemistry -- something Stenhouse mentions frequently when discussing Kelley -- is clearly important to the driver. If chemistry is truly what Stenhouse needs to see numbers like his Nationwide Series runs, there should be no question that the 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year can have a sophomore breakthrough.
"Having Mike back on the pit box is going to be huge," he said. "You know, that chemistry that we have, that we had in the Nationwide Series, is tough to match, and so him and I are having a lot of fun this offseason, the guys are having fun. And that's what teams are all about. Just cause you have the best mechanics on a team doesn't mean you're going to have the best team, you've still got to have that chemistry, and I think we have that this year -- and that's exactly what I felt like we were missing last year."