By Lee Montgomery
Special to Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said he'd be more aggressive in this weekend's Ford 300 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, having taken a fairly comfortable 41-point lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series points standings.
But if you read that as a young driver being unnecessarily risky, you haven't been paying attention. Maybe there was a time when the aggressive Stenhouse would take too many chances, but that was before he nearly lost his ride last year.
"Ricky Stenhouse, a year ago, was just a possibility," Roush Fenway Racing co-owner Jack Roush said. "He was not a reality for sure. Ricky has matured over the winter. His Dad, Ricky Sr., has certainly counseled him, and Ricky Jr., has taken his advice."
And now, the 24-year-old Stenhouse Jr. is on the verge of a Nationwide Series championship, as he needs only to finish 37th or better at Homestead to eliminate Elliott Sadler.
Stenhouse has talked openly about nearly losing his job a year ago after a difficult beginning of the 2010 season. But Roush stuck with him, though Stenhouse said the turnaround actually began at Daytona last July-the first race with the new Nationwide Series car.
"I don't think a light switch went off between last year and this year," Stenhouse said. "I think it started about Daytona, July, of last year. Everything started clicking. I think our racecars got better, our engines got better. I feel like our team was strong. I feel like I probably let them down a lot of times. I think I learned more patience and to stay focused through the races better and better at every race.
"That carried over to this year. Up and down in this sport is how it has always been, and it doesn't matter if it is growing up racing Sprint Cars at the dirt track or up here in this league. The up and down is part of it, but I think that it really makes me appreciate this year a lot more. I think if we were to be in this situation last year, I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I do now."
Stenhouse has won twice this year, both times at Iowa Speedway, and has 15 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes. None of those totals leads the series, as Sprint Cup drivers Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have eight wins apiece, while Edwards-Stenhouse's Roush Fenway teammate-has 22 top-five and 26 top-10 finishes.
But Edwards and Busch and other Cup drivers aren't eligible for the Nationwide title this year after NASCAR demanded that drivers pick one series in which to earn points.
That doesn't diminish the championship in the least, Stenhouse said.
"I don't think so," Stenhouse said. "We are sitting third in owners points and we are up there with the other guys. We are running with those other guys every week. At Iowa we beat Brad (Keselowski) and Carl so I don't think it takes anything away from it. We are working really hard to win this deal. It is not easy. I don't think it takes away from it at all."
What: Ford 300
Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway; Homestead, Fla.
When: Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Eastern
TV: ESPN2, 4 p.m. Eastern
Radio: MRN-Sirius/XM Satellite Ch. 90
Track layout: 1.5-mile oval
Race distance: 200 laps/300 miles
Qualifying: Saturday, 1:05 p.m. Eastern
2010 winner: Kyle Busch
2010 polesitter: Joey Logano
Points standings: 1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 1,179; 2. Elliott Sadler, 1,138; 3. Justin Allgaier, 1,074; 4. Aric Almirola, 1,059; 5. Reed Sorenson, 1,043; 6. Jason Leffler, 996; 7. Kenny Wallace, 952; 8. Michael Annett, 918; 9. Brian Scott, 912; 10. Steve Wallace, 911.