DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. first made the switch from sprint cars to stock cars, he wrecked an awful lot of Jack Roush’s inventory.
It got so bad that Roush had to sit Stenhouse down in an attempt to rein him in a little bit.
The patience Roush showed Stenhouse while rebuilding his organization – once among the top in NASCAR – paid off Saturday night when Stenhouse won for the second time this season. His victory at Daytona International Speedway was his second in two months. He had gone 155 Cup races before getting to victory lane.
Roush wasn’t at Daytona to celebrate with Stenhouse , though. He took the holiday weekend off and was on vacation with his granddaughter.
“We believe we’re on the right track, and you always want more, but we’re pretty excited about the direction we’re headed, and that’s a testament to Jack Roush and what he’s set up,” Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said. “Jack is on vacation taking his granddaughter out to see Mount Rushmore, and it’s something we’ve encouraged him to do because what Jack has done over the last year is really empowered a group of individuals to try to run the company on a day-to-day basis.
“This is probably Jack’s proudest moment because this was a race that he wasn’t at, and we were still able to implement everything that he’s taught us and go out there and get him in victory lane.”
There’s no denying that Stenhouse, who turns 30 in October, has been an integral part of Roush’s turnaround. He’s in his fifth full season and wasn’t promoted to the Cup level until 2013 after he’d won consecutive Xfinity Series championships.
The promotion was rocky for a while, in part because of Stenhouse’s natural drive to push too hard, and in part because Roush was on a rapid road toward mediocrity. The team had gone from five Cup cars in its heyday and a monster lineup that included Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch to just a two-car team this year.
As the Roush group continued to rebuild, Stenhouse figured out his strengths. One of them, second-place finisher Clint Bowyer said, is clearly racing on restrictor plate tracks. Stenhouse’s first victory was in May at Talladega.
“He does a good job of blocking. He’s learned a lot. He’s become a good plate racer,” Bowyer said. “I remember when he came in, he was a little bit chaotic, but he’s not now. He’s got it figured out, and he’s won two of them.”
Stenhouse laughed at Bowyer’s use of the word “chaotic” and chalked it up to coming through the ranks racing sprint cars. But actually having a car that can contend has been a significant part of the growing process.
“I think us dirt guys, we drive the car really hard,” Stenhouse said. “I think a lot of the times as a race car driver you try to take the car and put it on your back. It’s tough to do in the Cup Series. Everything has got to align right, and I think when I came into the Cup Series, I almost thought we were going to win our first race at Kansas that year and get our first win out of the way.
“Then really kind of struggled after that. I feel like just trying too hard and making mistakes and us not necessarily having the cars where we want them and everybody was just trying to do more than we were capable of for a long time.”
Now that the rebuild has turned an obvious corner – two wins this season from Stenhouse, a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, improvement from Roush teammate Trevor Bayne and behind-the-scenes personnel moves that are now in Year 3 – it’s up to Stenhouse to continue delivering on the track.
He knows there’s still a lot of work to do toward building a consistent Ford entry for the 10-race playoffs this fall. With both wins on plate tracks, he still needs to prove he can win across the spectrum of tracks. But through 17 races so far this season, Stenhouse already has a career-high seven top-10s.
“I feel like our next accomplishments that we can do on the racetrack are probably short-track wins,” he said. “We’re still working on our mile-and-a-half program. We don’t feel like we’re capable of winning on a mile-and-a-half. We feel like we can run top 10 and get top-10 finishes, but we’re not ready to go out and win those races yet.
“But that’s something that we’re working toward, trying to get a plan together for the playoffs so that we can go out and compete at those. But I feel really good about the short tracks.”