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NASCAR Season Preview: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Photo credit: Ted Van Pelt (CC-BY)

#6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: October 2, 1987

Home: Olive Branch, Mississippi

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: At the Nationwide level, Stenhouse posted one of the most consistent seasons in recent NASCAR memory, scoring two wins (both at Iowa) and 26 top 10s (including nine consecutive to close out the season) in 34 starts for a remarkable 8.8 average finish. His efforts were rewarded with a Nationwide Series championship and Daytona 500 ride with Roush Fenway Racing. He also made his Sprint Cup debut in the Coca-Cola 600 for the Wood Brothers, starting ninth and finishing 11th.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: The only bummer for Stenhouse in 2011 was an uncertain future, foreshadowed by a handful of unsponsored races. Now that 2011 is in the past, that uncertainty was the defining trait of Stenhouse’s offseason, and continues as Daytona inches ever closer.

SEASON OUTLOOK: You would think that, after winning the Nationwide Series title with a season as solid as Stenhouse’s, he would receive some serious consideration for a full-time Sprint Cup ride with Roush Fenway Racing or the Wood Brothers. At the very least, you would expect to see Stenhouse’s Nationwide team return to run for a second consecutive title in that series. And yet, on both counts, you would be wrong. Beyond running the Daytona 500 in the #6 car that Mark Martin made famous, Stenhouse’s 2012 plans aren’t set at all; Roush Fenway Racing, a pioneer in signing multiple companies to sponsor the same car, has been bitten by its own success, as most of their sponsors are shifting their money to Carl Edwards.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse, who has the potential to become one of the strongest rookie of the year candidates that Sprint Cup has seen in years, may sit on the sidelines for much of the season. Jack Roush ran Stenhouse for the full Nationwide schedule in 2012 despite only having about half of the races sponsored. He’s done it at the Sprint Cup level before, too, but even with the owners’ points to run the first five races guaranteed, the money just isn’t there like it used to be. In fact, the team laid off about 100 workers in the offseason as it prepares to run only three full-time Sprint Cup cars for the first time since 1997. It’s hard to be optimistic for Stenhouse when he seems most likely to face the chopping block.

– Chris Leone

UPDATE: Though nothing has been officially announced yet, Jack Roush himself appeared on Claire B. Lang’s XM Satellite Radio show, “Dialed In,” last night to say that Stenhouse will run the full Nationwide Series campaign and step into Sprint Cup when and if a replacement primary sponsor for the #6 is found.

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