Long before he was part of NASCAR’s young power couple, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was a young open-wheel driver who couldn’t wait to visit Bristol Motor Speedway.
However, it wasn’t to see a NASCAR race.
Stenhouse was a 13-year-old from Mississippi when he first came to the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” to watch the World of Outlaws sprint cars race around a dirt surface laid over the top of the famed NASCAR track.
“The first time I was there, they had the dirt on it and the sprint cars so that was awesome,” he said. “Walking into the track, you watch a movie like ‘Gladiator’ in the colosseum and that’s what it is. It’s a great place to race, a place for the fans to be up close and personal.”
In the dozen years since then, Stenhouse has become much more than a spectator.
As a Sprint Cup Series rookie, he’s already one of the most recognizable drivers in the sport, thanks in large part to his off-track relationship with fellow driver Danica Patrick.
Both are competing for Rookie of the Year this season, Stenhouse in the No. 17 Best Buy Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse will make his Sprint Cup Series debut at BMS in Sunday’s Food City 500, while Patrick will make her second BMS start.
He’s excited about his prospects after a stellar performance in last August’s Food City 250 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In that race, Stenhouse led 60 laps on his way to a runner-up finish.
“We haven’t won there like we think we can,” Stenhouse said. “We were fast in August, but it’s a tricky place now that they’ve worked on the top groove. It’s slick, but then again, it makes for some good racing. I think running the top, the racing is better where you can run all over the race track.”
Stenhouse comes into NASCAR’s premier series after winning back-to-back Nationwide Series titles in Jack Roush’s No. 6 Mustang. Still, there is unfinished business at Bristol. He won the pole for the 2011 spring race, but finished the race two laps down in 14th. He had another strong car at the 2012 Ford EcoBoost 300 and qualified third, but ended up with a sixth-place finish.
Stenhouse compared Bristol, the world’s most famous short track, to Daytona and Indianapolis as one of those marquee places where every driver dreams of visiting victory lane.
“Bristol, we wanted to win in the Nationwide Series and didn’t get it done,” he said. “That’s definitely one of those places you have marked on the calendar to win.”
Winning has never been a problem for Stenhouse, who won 50 A-Main karting victories by age 15, and moved on to become one of the top winged sprint car drivers in the country. He was the top rookie in both the USAC National Sprint and Midget Car Series in 2007 before focusing attention on stock cars the next season where he led the ARCA Series point standings for 13 weeks.
Still, there were some struggles adapting to the heavier full-bodied cars.
He won the 2010 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year Award, but his average finish was just 19th place. He credits car owner Jack Roush for sticking with him through those difficult times.
“I don’t think I would have gotten that long of an opportunity to figure these stock cars out if I was somewhere else,” he said. “Jack was good to me. He let me crash a lot and still stood behind me. He saw the potential. Jack is very dedicated and I’m thankful for that.”
The potential was realized with the back-to-back series titles. After posting two wins and three poles in 2011, Stenhouse romped to six wins and four poles last season.
Now, comes a chance to prove himself on stock car racing’s biggest stage. In the first three races of this season, he has finishes of 12th, 16th and 18th.
“It’s a huge opportunity for myself, for my family, everybody who’s helped me get to this position. We’re really going to work well as a team. Our expectations are to compete for wins.”
He explained winning is what he races for. It’s certainly a good opportunity in a car which former Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth drove to three victories last season. The No. 17 Ford also has a proven history at Bristol. Kenseth piloted the car to back-to-back wins in the August night race in 2005-06, and finished second to race winner Brad Keselowski in last year’s Food City 500.
However, Stenhouse said the only real pressure to live up to any expectations comes from himself.
“No one puts more pressure on myself than I do,” he said. “No outside pressure will be on myself like I have. Jack doesn’t put it on me. Ford doesn’t put it on me. Best Buy doesn’t. They’re all very supportive. We’re at the top level of the sport and we’ve made it, but you’ve got to learn to stay here. I figured out how to get here. Now, I’ve just got to learn how to stay here and run up front.”