By Lee Montgomery
Special to the Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
What a difference a year makes for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
This time last year, Stenhouse had crashed out of the season's first two races, a dreadful start to what became an extraordinarily difficult season.
But in 2011, Stenhouse is second in the Nationwide Series points standings as the series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Saturday's Sam's Town 300.
For Stenhouse, the 2010 season likely always will be the elephant in the room, and in some ways that's OK with him because it gives him perspective.
But Stenhouse tires of talking about it and hopes it soon will fade into memory. Folks likely will not stop asking him about it for some time, though.
"Probably not," Stenhouse said with a sigh. "Hopefully. Hopefully after this year they will. Hopefully we can have a good, solid year all year long and kind of forget about 2010 and focus on what's ahead. That's our plan. We hate hearing about it, but then again, if it wasn't for last year, we wouldn't be where we are today and appreciate the way things are going right now.
"I think it built character in our whole team, and we feel like we've got a good, solid team."
As a rookie last year, Stenhouse was parked by team owner Jack Roush for two races and failed to qualify for a third. But somewhere along the way, Stenhouse and his No. 6 team figured things out. He had two top-five finishes in the second half of the season and finished with back-to-back top 10s.
Couple that with finishes of eighth and Daytona and seventh at Phoenix, and Stenhouse appears to be a contender for the Nationwide title.
"I assess (our season as) good, based off of last year," Stenhouse said. "But we've been disappointed after the races because we've felt like we had better cars to finish farther up front. We felt like we had two top-five cars that we finished two top 10s with.
"We're just thinking through things a lot more than we have been. The confidence is better, the team is still behind us 100 percent. We're off to a good start; we've just got to keep it going."
Stenhouse finished 30th in the Sam's Town 300 last year, but 1.5-mile tracks such as Las Vegas now seem to suit him.
"I actually really enjoy the mile-and-a-halves," Stenhouse said. "I've always enjoyed them, and then later in the season last year we got to running really well on them. We led some laps at Texas, we ran up front in Kansas and we were fast in Homestead. We were really fast, which is kind of cool because we're going to Las Vegas with a similar setup that we ran at the Nationwide race in Charlotte when we had the (new Nationwide car)."
What: Sam's Town 300
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
When: Saturday, 3:15 p.m. Eastern
TV: ABC, 2:30 p.m. Eastern
Radio: PRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 1.5-mile oval
Race distance: 200 laps/300 miles
Qualifying: Saturday, 12:05 p.m. Eastern
2010 winner: Kevin Harvick
2010 polesitter: Brad Keselowski