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Roush Fenway rookies Colin Braun, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. try to turn the corner

By Lee Montgomery

Roush Fenway Racing invested heavily in its driver-development program for 2010, running rookies Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. full time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

But things have not started well for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidates. Braun was 30th in the drivers standings after five races, with Stenhouse 32nd. Both teams were outside the top 30 in the owners standings heading to this weekend’s race at Phoenix, meaning both drivers needed to make the race via qualifying.

Both drivers did that Friday at Phoenix International Raceway as they try to reverse what has been a difficult season.

Braun came in with more experience than Stenhouse, but his best finish was only an 18th at Las Vegas. Braun has three DNFs because of crashes and also was involved in a wreck last weekend at Nashville before finishing 30th.

That was one spot better than Stenhouse, who has two DNFs because of accidents and has yet to finish on the lead lap.

"Our season has not started the way we expected it to start," Stenhouse Jr. said last week. "We had a few good runs last year. We switched whole teams , crew chiefs. We got Colin’s truck team coming up, so they’re learning the Nationwide Series. The crew chief’s learning the Nationwide Series. We’re all just learning together. I feel like that put us a step behind.

"We definitely haven’t put ourselves in the best situations on the race track. That’s something I’m going to have to work on. I feel like we’re building as a team. Just glad that (sponsor) CitiFinancial’s sticking behind us – and Jack Roush – to keep us out there and keep us going so that we can learn and we can get back on track.

"I feel like we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve just got to get there, have a little bit of luck and stay focused."

All Braun hopes for is to continue to get better every week. He’s qualified the No. 16 Ford well, starting in the top 20 the first five races. But his race runs haven’t been what he wanted.

"It’s not the season both of us wanted to have," Braun said of he and his rookie teammate. "It’s been pretty disappointing. For myself, personally, I feel like we’ve had a lot of bright spots in a lot of the negative things. We haven’t had the finishes we’ve been running at; we’ve gotten in wrecks.

"But I feel like I’ve got a lot of positives. We’ve been getting better every week, we’ve been running faster and better in practice, working better together as a team, understanding my crew chief a lot more. We’re both kind of figuring out what each other wants."

Sprint Cup veteran Carl Edwards, teammate to the two rookies, warns against setting expectations too high.

"This is a very, very tough series," Edwards said. "Our 60 team finished 12th on average in 2007 when we won the championship. In 2008, we were ninth and didn’t win. In 2009, we were a sixth-place average or something like that – and almost finished third in the championship. That’s how tough this series is."

"These guys have jumped head first in the deep end. It’s amazing how well they’re running."

Stenhouse agreed with the difficulty of the Nationwide Series.

"This series is tough," Stenhouse Jr. said. "Coming off of last year, we would end practice in the top 10, and we would run close to the top 10 and felt like this year was going to be a lot better than what it has been so far, for sure."