Heading into the 2013 season, a lot of the talk was of two new high profile rookies entering NASCAR’s Sprint Cup division: Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. That storyline has ballooned with the advent of both drivers becoming officially a couple in the offseason (source: Examiner). However, maybe one of the underlying but more important stories of the year will be whether Stenhouse, who is replacing former champion Matt Kenseth in the #17 Ford, can win a race and contend for the championship this year.
In a world where fans and sponsors alike demand immediate results, the two-time Nationwide champ has a huge amount of pressure heaped on him along with enormous shoes to fill at Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse, the newest young gun to hit NASCAR, replaces Kenseth who has won a Cup championship along with 24 victories and 226 Top 10s over a 13 year span at Roush Fenway. Kenseth will likely one day be in the Hall of Fame. Yeah, huge shoes to fill, personified.
Roush Fenway’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is without doubt up for the task. The 25 year old showed he had what it took when he won the Nationwide championship in 2011 with two wins and 26 Top 10s. Yet, with no place to move up into at the Cup level, Stenhouse had to stay an additional year in Nationwide where he promptly won six more events and another 26 Top 10s for a second title in-a-row (source: NASCAR).
Certainly Stenhouse has a quality team behind him in Roush Fenway and the #17. Along with his teammate Greg Biffle (who won twice in ’12), Kenseth battled all year in the Top 10. Kenseth had a total of three wins in 2012 and stayed in the top five in the standings most of the year while essentially holding on in the Top 10 in points for the entire season. The only issue here is that Scott Graves is a new crew chief and the chemistry between Stenhouse and Graves is limited to just a few races near the end of last year. On the bright side though, Graves may be new as a crew chief but he was instrumental last year in Roush Fenway’s development of the new car for 2013.
Winning and even dominating in the Nationwide series isn’t the same as being competitive in Cup. Transitioning onto this main stage of motorsports in the United States is tough enough without the added velocity of press coverage about your personal relationship with maybe the most high-profile driver in the world (Patrick), which further ads enormous pressure to win races. But that is the arena Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has chosen and set to compete in this year.
Can the newest NASCAR young gun contend for a championship and win a Sprint Cup race in his rookie year? Time will tell but the pressure and media coverage on Stenhouse in 2013 will be daunting to say the least. Theater, drama and demands are nothing new in the world of NASCAR and this season’s Cup battles will include a variety of stories including Stenhouse’s exploits on the track as well as off … and it will be interesting to watch.
Additional sources: Roush Fenway Racing