by Ryan Isley
When Roush Fenway Racing signed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as the replacement for Matt Kenseth beginning last season, they thought they were getting a driver who would soon be a name everyone would mention when talking about the best drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. So far, they have just gotten Danica Patrick’s boyfriend.
In his two seasons behind the wheel of the No.17 Ford in the Roush Fenway stable, Stenhouse Jr. has just two top-5s and eight top-10s in 73 races and has not yet found victory lane. The two-time Nationwide Series champion has not yet made the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but he was the 2013 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year (albeit against a weak field that included just Danica and Timmy Hill).
Things were looking up for Stenhouse Jr. as he entered his second full season in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, having finished 19th in the 2013 standings as a rookie. But the 2014 season was anything but encouraging for the No.17 team, as Stenhouse Jr. finished 27th in the points standings and missed the Chase by 197 points.
It wasn’t just about the points finish for Stenhouse Jr., however. The biggest concern was that the 27-year old wasn’t particularly competitive for the most part on the season. Stenhouse Jr. finished the season with just five top-10 finishes and his best finish of 2nd was in the fourth race of the season. In fact, two of his top-10s came in the first four races, as he finished 7th in the season-opening Daytona 500. The finish wasn’t as strong as the start was, as he went the last 12 races of the season without a top-10 and just one finish of 15th or better.
Overall, Stenhouse Jr. had an average finish of just 22.4 and didn’t lead a single lap in 2014 – making him the only driver in the top 34 of the standings to not lead a lap during the season. He also had more finishes in the bottom 10 than he did in the top 10, finishing 34th or worse six times and finishing 40th or worse three times. His 2014 even included a race in which he failed to qualify, missing the Geico 500 at Talladega in October after a confusing qualifying round that left many drivers scratching their heads and looking for answers.
Speaking of looking for answers, that is exactly what Stenhouse Jr. has to be doing right now. He and the Roush Fenway team need to start finding these answers pretty quickly because they will need him to start being a leader along with Greg Biffle, as the team has been restructured once again. Carl Edwards followed Kenseth over to Joe Gibbs Racing starting in 2015, so Roush has promoted Trevor Bayne to a full-time Sprint Cup Series ride. Despite having won the 2011 Daytona 500, Bayne has just 57 races under his belt in the Sprint Cup Series in the last four seasons and has never run the series full-time.
If there was ever a time for Stenhouse Jr. to once again find the winning ways that landed him in victory lane eight times combined and netted him two series championships in the Nationwide Series in 2011 and 2012, now would be as good of a time as any. He – and the team – could really use the boost.