DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. became half of NASCAR’s biggest celebrity couple since Kurt and Kyle Busch, he was a race car driver.
He didn’t attain fame until he began to date fellow Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick. She announced last month that they were dating.
But he was always fast – the 2007 USAC National Sprint and Midget Car rookie of the year, 2010 Nationwide Series rookie of the year, 2011 and 2012 Nationwide Series champ.
On Thursday in the second of the Budweiser Duels at Daytona International Speedway he was even nailed for speeding on pit road.
This week, however, he is less a racer than an exhibit. Watch him. Better, watch fans watch him. As he stands near his Ford Fusion Thursday a woman in a Jeff Gordon jacket points and says: “That’s Danica’s boyfriend!”
Stenhouse is a popular interview, the second most popular rookie in all of Daytona Beach. Of course, he’s popular not because of who he is but who he’s with.
Here’s a little about who he is.
Stenhouse is 25. He has a firm handshake. He’s courteous, clean cut, up-and-coming and down-to-earth. He comes from a Memphis suburb, Olive Branch, Miss. In pictures he wears cowboy hats and cowboy shirts and a belt buckle the size of a paperback book. His dad, Ricky Sr., was a racer. Ricky Jr. first visited the shop when he was 6 1/2 weeks old.
“It’s all about racing,” Stenhouse says Thursday. “I put everything into racing.”
Away from the track, “friends and family,” he says.
Stenhouse loves sports, loves watching sports and played baseball and basketball and football. He chose racing because he was better at it than he was the other sports.
He’s aggressive on the track. He drives hard and believes good things will happen because he believes in his ability and the ability of his team.
In 2010 Stenhouse crashed in four of the season’s first 10 Nationwide Series races.
Team owner Jack Roush yanked him out of the car and replaced him for four races, one for every crash.
Rather than send Stenhouse home, Roush came up with a brilliant solution.
He put him to work.
“I went to the shop,” Stenhouse says. “Six-thirty a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with an hour for lunch.”
A racer in the shop is like a quarterback on the offensive line. I don’t see it catching on.
Stenhouse says he started by cutting metal off the car he wrecked. He worked in the chassis shop. He worked in the fabrication department.
“I thought I knew” what went on in the shop, Stenhouse says.
He didn’t. He didn’t know how hard his co-workers labored to provide him with a competitive machine. He didn’t know how much time they spent away from their families to put him in position to win.
When Stenhouse returned to the car he didn’t mute his aggressiveness. But he became more thoughtful. He always had the ability. Now he had perspective.
He finished third his first race back and went on to record seven top-10 finishes. He won two straight championships. So he comes to Sprint Cup with enormous momentum.
What would he consider a good rookie season?
Stenhouse says he hasn’t attached numbers to his goals.
“But top 15 in points would be a good season,” he says.
Stephen Leicht was the 2012 Sprint Cup rookie of the year. He finished 41st.
Last season was not a good season for rookies.
I thank Stenhouse for his time and ask a final question. When was the last time anybody interviewed you without asking about Danica Patrick?
“This is it,” Stenhouse says.