Stenhouse Jr., Roush make pit stop in Winona
WINONA — NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is used to traveling around the country and going to different race tracks, but on Monday he took a stop where there wasn’t a track.
Stenhouse, along with car/team owner Jack Roush, were in Winona Monday to show their appreciation to Winona-based Fastenal for a new sponsorship deal, making Fastenal the main sponsor of car No. 17. For Stenhouse, it was more than just a business trip.
“It gives me an opportunity to say ‘hey’ to the employees of Fastenal, thanking them for all of the hard work they do, because without them and their hard work, Fastenal wouldn’t be so successful and we wouldn’t have them as a sponsorship on our race car,” Stenhouse said. “A lot of them watch races on the weekend. After this weekend, a lot of them knew I crashed and told me ‘sorry,’ and to go get them next week. So it’s cool to know that they watch as well and support us.”
Stenhouse was seemingly destined to be some type of race car driver. He was born in Olive Branch, Miss., and was born into a racing family. He was just six weeks old when his family took him to the local dirt track where his father, Ricky Stenhouse Sr., raced. His love for racing started at an early age as he started racing at 6 years-old in a go-kart circuit. He always thought of it as a hobby and didn’t seriously think about a career in racing until he got older.
“As soon as I started racing go-karts, I said I wanted to do this forever,” said Stenhouse, who said he is obsessed with exercising and was even on the show American Ninja Warrior in June. “But when I started racing full-size cars, that is when I realized I could make a living out of it and took it more serious. I did whatever I could to make it. I have been very fortunate to get the right breaks at the right time, to now get to race for Jack Roush, it has been a great and unbelievable journey.”
Stenhouse got his big break in 2008 after he put up gaudy numbers in the United States Auto Club (USAC), where he was named the top rookie in the USAC National Sprint and Midget Car Series in 2007. Roush Fenway Racing came calling, and promoted Stenhouse to the upper levels of stock car racing.
“To get the opportunity to race for Jack Roush is a dream. There is no one else I would rather race for,” Stenhouse said. “He is a legend in our sport, he is always there for me. When I first started racing for him we didn’t have full-time sponsorship, but he ran me anyways to get experience. That just meant a lot to me.”
Getting that early experience paid off for Stenhouse and Roush, as Stenhouse would go on to dominate the Nationwide Series, which is now the Xfinity Series. He became only the sixth driver to win consecutive titles in NASCAR’s steppingstone series when he captured the Nationwide Series championships in both 2011 and 2012. In those two seasons, Stenhouse recorded eight wins, 35 top-five finishes and 52 top 10 performance. In 2013, Stenhouse was promoted to the highest level of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series, replacing Wisconsin driver Matt Kenseth and racing full-time in the No. 17 car.
Fresh off of back-to-back Nationwide championships, the expectations were high for Stenhouse. Initially he was able to live up to them with a strong rookie campaign that saw him rack up three top 10s and one top-five finish en route to being named the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. But the next couple of seasons would be tough for Stenhouse as he managed just two top-five finishes and had twice as many DNFs (Did Not Finish) than laps led. He had an average finish of 23 in those two years and never finished higher than 25 in the Sprint Cup standings.
The results left him looking for answers.
“I believe our cars weren’t as fast as they were in the Xfinity Series, but I felt like we had a really good idea and we did everything we could do to get them fast,” Stenhouse said. “I knew how to drive them, but being in the Cup series the drivers are better, the teams are better, it is harder to hone in and get everything perfect.”
Stenhouse seems to have figured some things out this season as he already has as many top-five finishes this year (2), than he had the past two years combined. This included a fifth-place finish just two weeks ago at Daytona in the Coke Zero 400, but his improved season hit a speed bump this past weekend in Kentucky where he crashed in the ninth lap. That left him in last place and dropped him to 22nd in the standings.
That performance, however, didn’t shake Stenhouse’s confidence.
“We have only had four bad races this year. We have had some bad luck here and there, a couple of bad tires, but last week was the first time we made a big mistake,” Stenhouse said. “Other than those four races, I feel really good about where our team is at and what we have been able to do this year. I’m still looking for my first win the Cup and Fastenal is still looking for their first Sprint Cup win. I’m glad when I get it, it will be our first together.”
Stenhouse will look to get that first win on Sunday, July 17, at the New Hampshire 301.