LAS VEGAS -- On a cold and rainy afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sat in his race car clad in jeans and a pullover, his cowboy hat resting upside down on the roof. There would be no on-track activity this day at the 1.5-mile facility -- in a matter of minutes, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director John Darby would announce that everything had been canceled -- but Stenhouse remained nestled inside his vehicle, even as crewmen jacked up one side to change the qualifying setup to race trim.
"Welcome to my office," Stenhouse said with a laugh. He was snug in the race car partly, he said, to keep warm. But it was clear that the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate was using the rain delay as an opportunity to further bond with members of a race team that had been cobbled together from other programs at Roush Fenway Racing, for whom Stenhouse had won a pair of Nationwide Series championships before moving up to NASCAR's premier division in a No. 17 car most recently occupied by Matt Kenseth.
"That's the first thing you think -- oh, these guys aren't going to like getting stuck with me," said Stenhouse, who by virtue of 2012 owners points will start seventh in Sunday's event. "Because some of them were on Matt's car, some of them were on Carl (Edwards') car. Those guys are in contention for wins every week, winning championships. ? But they were all pumped up and told me they essentially volunteered and wanted to do this, and I think that says a lot."
It clearly eases the transition for a driver who lately has been getting a lot more attention for who he's dating -- fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Danica Patrick -- than what he's capable of on the race track. Through two races, though, Stenhouse finds himself ninth in points after a pair of solid if unspectacular finishes to open his first full-time Sprint Cup campaign. For a driver more accustomed to chasing race wins and championships, the goals are now more modest: acclimate to the faster pace of the sport's top circuit, and aim for top-15 results in the process.
Getting there requires an adjustment. "It's like everything is fast-forward," Stenhouse said.
In the Nationwide Series, where teams get only one set of tires for practice, crew chiefs can afford to be patient. Cars dribble out onto the track a few at a time, and do the same on pit road during the race. There's less horsepower in the vehicles, and typically less depth in the starting field. In the Sprint Cup, by comparison, everything happens at warp speed, and all at once.
"Everything's at a faster pace," Stenhouse said. "You're coming into the garage, making changes, getting on the race track as quick as you can and getting off the race track as quick as you can so you can make another run. Practice for the Nationwide car, you only have one set of tires, so you kind of draw the practice out. You're not in a huge hurry. You're taking your time. With more tires, you literally rush in here, make the change, hurry up to get back out. So practice is a little fast-paced. Jumping out on the race track, there can be 20 cars on the track at one time. Nationwide, there may be six or seven cars. That adds up."
It goes much deeper -- from setups that can vary completely from qualifying to the race, to crew chiefs who search not for just a good balance but an ideal one, to drivers who need to have a fuller grasp of how to make the vehicle better, and translate information from practice to the race. Stenhouse got a taste of it by making five Sprint Cup starts prior to this season, but his eyes are wide open now that he's in it full time.
"I had seen it, and I knew it. But doing it every week, it's like -- whoa. You've really got to be on your game," Stenhouse said. "These guys are sitting in their car 10 minutes before practice, ready to go out. So I'm sitting here ready to go out."
That kind of patience hasn't always been a Stenhouse trademark. He endured plenty of rocky moments on his career climb, most notably in a Nationwide rookie season in which he crashed cars with alarming frequency. There was the time he spun in qualifying at Nashville, failed to make the event, but still had to stay for the race because he didn't have a ride home. There were the times Jack Roush pulled him from the car at Kentucky and Watkins Glen. There were the times when Stenhouse had to escape to the beach just to clear his head, and his team was so short on equipment it brought whatever cars it could manage to the race track.
Stenhouse was worried about getting fired. Instead his team put an emphasis on getting to the finish, forcing a change in mentality from a driver who previously had always gone big or gone home. The 25-year-old from Olive Branch, Miss., had always been that way, even in his days running U.S. Auto Club cars for Tony Stewart. "It's like, if we didn't win, we were crashing," Stenhouse remembered. Stewart has the remains to prove it.
"I've got a lot of race car frames in my lake that have his name on them, or cars that he crashed," Stewart said. "But the thing about Ricky that was good about him from the start was he was always fast. It didn't matter whether it was the sprint car, the midgets, the silver crown car, all three cars he got in and was quick right away. The hardest part was pulling the reins back in on him. There were races he'd have half a lap lead on second place, and crash the car with 10 laps to go. That was the hard stuff to get him to understand, is you don't have to go 100 percent every lap."
It took Stenhouse time to learn how to harness that aggressive style, and how to be patient when the situation or the vehicle demanded it. Those are the lessons that kept him off the brink of unemployment while in the Nationwide Series, and transformed him into a two-time champion. Those are the lessons that will serve him well on the Sprint Cup tour, where the events are longer, the season is more demanding and there's such an emphasis on maximizing points and getting the vehicle home.
"I like to drive hard, and obviously when you get to this level, especially running for points -- you've got to make sure when you have a car that can run 10th, that you run 10th with it," Stenhouse said. "You can't sit here and try to make it go from 10th to a win and end up 30th. That's just something I had to figure out. I didn't really ever race for points growing up, and so I had to learn that."
The result was a calculated driver who was aggressive when he needed to be, and proved absolutely dogged when near the front. Stenhouse's ability to seize the lead and not relinquish it fueled his eight victories in the Nationwide Series over the past two seasons, and in Roush's eyes made him the clear heir apparent to Kenseth once the 2003 champion left for Joe Gibbs Racing.
"Ricky Stenhouse will be as good in this business as any driver has been in the modern era. He is the real deal," Roush said. "There are a lot of drivers that have the mechanical and technical skill to drive these cars, but there are fewer of them ? that actually can close the deal. You've got to be able to hang on to this victory, this space on the race track, tighter than the guy next to you. It's a tug of war. It's necessary to be able to drive the race cars, it's necessary to be able to diagnose what the race car needs, but it's absolutely required -- it's essential -- to have the fight as big as the guy next to you when it's time to cross the start/finish line."
High praise indeed for a guy who these days seems better known as Danica's boyfriend. But Stenhouse is trying to make his own name, and now embarks upon a Sprint Cup career that's been shaped by all those lessons he learned through difficult times so long ago.
"I do know those times can come at any moment, so we've got to stay focused," Stenhouse said. "I think it makes me stay more focused in the race car during practice, in the race car during qualifying, in the race. It makes me stay more focused, because I think that's one reason we did have all the crashing -- I didn't stay focused enough to really put everything together. So all in all, I think it was great to go through it. I hated going through it at the time. But it also made me appreciate everything we were able to accomplish."
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