by Ryan Isley
In every sport, there will be movement among players going from team to team, be it by trade or free agency. While there aren’t actually any trades in NASCAR – unless you count crew members and crew chiefs – free agency has become a big part of the sport, especially among the top drivers.
2013 won’t be any different.
This past week, NASCAR was hit with a bombshell when Matt Kenseth announced that following the 2012 season he will be leaving Roush Fenway Racing and has a deal in place for 2013, despite not yet announcing with whom just yet.
There could have been many drivers lining up to replace Kenseth had Roush Fenway Racing waiting to play the field when this season ends, but they made a quick choice – and in my opinion, the right choice. They tabbed Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. as the replacement for the 2003 Sprint Cup Series Champion, giving the defending Nationwide Series Champaion a full-time ride in NASCAR’s top series starting in 2013.
While I wrote back in February about Danica Patrick not deserving the 10 races she was given in the Sprint Cup Series in 2012, I also mentioned in that piece that there were drivers like Stenhouse, Jr. who were more deserving of a ride in NASCAR’s premier series and it is good to see that his work and patience has paid off.
In fact, the decision by Kenseth to move on may just be a blessing in disguise for Roush Fenway Racing, as they were going to have to figure out what to do with Stenhouse, Jr. pretty soon.
Roush Fenway Racing has Stenhouse, Jr. locked into a long-term contract and needed a spot for him in the Sprint Cup Series because he was going to outgrow the Nationwide Series soon – if he hasn’t already. Their biggest issue was that their three Sprint Cup Series drivers – Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle – are all championship contenders and they would not be able to justify taking a ride from any of those three to give it to Stenhouse, Jr. While the possibility may have emerged for Roush Fenway Racing to run a fourth Sprint Cup team, they had done that before and were forced to shut one down due to the economics of running four teams.
In 2010, Stenhouse, Jr. started off slow but came on strong late and was the Nationwide Series rookie of the year after having eight top-14 finishes in the season’s last 10 races to pass Brian Scott for the honor.
Using the momentum of that season, Stenhouse, Jr. had two wins, 16 top-5 finishes and 26 top-10 finishes in 34 races in 2011 en route to his Nationwide Series title. For the second straight year, he was better as the season went on, finishing 8th or better in the season’s final nine races and winning the championship by 45 points over Elliott Sadler. In those last nine races, Stenhouse, Jr. outscored Sadler by 40 points.
This season, despite having to be disappointed in not having a ride in the Sprint Cup Series, the 24-year-old has three wins and seven top-5 finishes in the series’ 14 races and currently is 3rd in the points standings, trailing Sadler by 23 points and 2nd-place Austin Dillon by 12 points. If Stenhouse, Jr. can win the championship this year, he would join two other juniors – Martin Truex, Jr. (2004-05) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (1998-99) – as the only drivers with consecutive Nationwide Series titles in the last 14 years.
To say that Stenhouse, Jr. has earned this spot is an understatement and it is good to see that Jack Roush and his team at Roush Fenway Racing have taken notice and reward him by bumping him up to the Sprint Cup Series for next season.
Now if they can just find a spot on their Nationwide team for Ryan Truex…
Happy that Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. got the ride? Sad that Kenseth is Leaving? Think someone else should have replaced Kenseth? Leave a comment here or email Ryan at email@example.com