Stenhouse Jr. Gaining Experience

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“My biggest struggle is we’ve been fast at the first 100 laps of the race, but it’s keeping up with the racetrack as good as those other guys do." (Photo: Getty Images)

Tis the season not only to determine the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion but to view the sport’s future.

Three drivers made their Cup debut last weekend at Charlotte, including Kyle Larson. Parker Kligerman will make his first Cup start in two weeks. Justin Allgaier made his in the Chase opener.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knows the feeling. Of course, it was only two years ago when he made his first Cup start, so the rush from that debut remains fresh. Stenhouse also knows the challenges those drivers will face when they move to Cup for a full season.

Stenhouse’s Cup debut wasn’t planned. He filled in for Trevor Bayne, sidelined by a bout with Lyme disease, at the Coca-Cola 600 for the Wood Brothers. Stenhouse recalls going to pit road well before he was scheduled to qualify, talking to people and soaking the experience. He qualified ninth and finished 11th. He kept the firesuit and helmet from that race.

“It was cool because it was a Wood Brothers suit,’’ Stenhouse said.

The experience - even in a 600-mile race - happened so quick on and off the track that weekend for Stenhouse. That has been among his biggest adjustments to a full ride in Cup.

“Everything just happens so much faster, going down the straightaways, how you have to drive it down into the corner, it definitely catches you off guard a little bit,’’ he said of the difference between a Cup and a Nationwide car.

“You definitely have to kind of calm yourself back down when you go to (Nationwide) garage that, “Hey this car is going to be slower than the car I just got out of.’ I’m still getting used to it.’’

Larson’s rise this season led to the debate of when a driver is ready for Cup. After only one Nationwide season, he’ll move to Cup next year, replacing Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. The differences in how a Nationwide and a Cup handle was cited by some drivers in saying the quick move up was good. Stenhouse, represented by the same management company as Larson, said he was asked if moving Larson to Cup quickly was the right move.

“It’s either you learn while doing it now or learn while you’re doing it later,’’ Stenhouse said he told them. “At some point you have to do it. I think he’s ready to do it.’’

While making the adjustment from the Nationwide car to a Cup car will be a challenge, that won’t compare to what any young driver faces in Cup. The most difficult part can be the lack of success and how one handles that.

Stenhouse went from winning the past two Nationwide titles to not scoring his first top 10 in Cup until the season was more than two-thirds complete.

He is 22nd in the points with one pole and two top-10 finishes. His best finish this season is eighth at Chicagoland Speedway. Stenhouse has placed in the top 20 in eight of the last 10 races.

“I think it’s more the transition in the caliber of teams and drivers,’’ he said of a key challenge he’s faced this year. “When we go to some of these racetracks, guys have more starts at one racetrack than I do in my whole Sprint Cup Series career.

That will be the case again this weekend when the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway. Stenhouse will be making his 37th career Cup start. Five drivers - Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip - have each made more starts at Talladega alone.

That experience matters in a race.

“My biggest struggle is we’ve been fast at the first 100 laps of the race, but it’s keeping up with the racetrack as good as those other guys do,’’ said Stenhouse, who is paired with rookie Cup crew chief Scott Graves. “Whether that’s my feedback to Scott or Scott taking my feedback and making the right adjustments that he needs to do.

“We’ve taken a look back at our races, and we’ve missed it in the middle part of the races. The end of the race we generally have some better speed than we do in the middle. That’s just the experience those guys have. They know what they’re doing the whole race.’’

It’s something Stenhouse is learning. It just takes a little time.

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