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Stenhouse Jr. battles a learning curve in Cup Series

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. stands by the door at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway's media center in Loudon; Tuesday, June 25, 2013. 
ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. stands by the door at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway's media center in Loudon; Tuesday, June 25, 2013. ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff

LOUDON – When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tested at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last month, it was a microcosm of his season.

“I’m trying to figure out the different braking points between our Cup cars and the Nationwide cars from last year,” Stenhouse said. “We’ve ran well here in the past and we’ve led laps, we’ve just got to get the Cup cars figured out.”

Stenhouse ran well everywhere last year, and the year before that, as he won back-to-back Nationwide championships for Roush Fenway Racing. But that level of success hasn’t followed the 25-year-old driver during his first full-time Sprint Cup season. Although he leads all rookies and jumped up two spots after last week’s 11th-place finish in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Stenhouse doesn’t feel great about being 18th in the point standings with no top-five or top-10 finishes to his credit.

“Not as good as we wanted. I think we’ve shown signs of being able to run up front, but we can’t seem to do it every week, so we’ve got to learn how to do it on all types of racetracks,” Stenhouse said. “I think the faster, smoother race tracks we seem to be pretty good on, we’re just looking for a little more speed when we go to the tracks that are a little older, a little rougher.”

Not only is Stenhouse racing in a different series with a different car, he’s doing it with a new crew chief, Scott Graves, who happens to be new to the job himself. Most of Graves’s experience has been in research and development, so he does have a thorough understanding of the new Cup cars, but this is his first full season as a chief at the top level.

Graves, Stenhouse and the rest of the No. 17 Fifth Third Ford Fusion team knows it will have plenty of work to do to prepare the car and driver for the challenges at NHMS and Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301. And they might be feeling a little extra pressure to get things right, considering the regional connection to the Fenway half of the Roush Fenway Racing team.

“A lot of different things going on on the mile racetrack here at New Hampshire,” Stenhouse said. “But I do enjoy coming to New Hampshire, being up here close to Fenway Park and all the Fenway sports guys and they always come out and support us. So we definitely want to get a good set-up here and come out and perform well for ’em. It’s an important racetrack, you’re here twice, one’s in the Chase, and so it’s definitely an important place to be good at and I think if we can find something here, it will kind of apply to all the other short tracks.”

Stenhouse did perform well in the Nationwide race at NHMS last year, qualifying third and finishing fifth in the F.W. Webb 200. And he did that despite being sick and so dehydrated that he fainted when he got out of the car after the race.

While all rookies feel the pressure of competing at a new level on the track, Stenhouse also has faced scrutiny off of it because of his romantic relationship with Danica Patrick. When Patrick drove Stenhouse to the Sonoma Raceway in Stenhouse’s Ford in late June, she was publicly scrutinized for not driving something from her manufacturer, Chevrolet. When the two were involved in a crash at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in late May, tabloid speculation followed that maybe their relationship was on the rocks (it wasn’t). Plus, Sprint Cup drivers usually spend more time at the track than their Nationwide counterparts, which has cut into some of Stenhouse’s relaxation time.

“The weekends are longer, so it’s hurt my golf game, I don’t get out on the course as much,” Stenhouse joked.

While the stories about Patrick might stir up some outside interest, and the lines about golf draw some laughs, the truth is Stenhouse is facing tougher competition than he’s ever faced, and that’s the biggest reason he isn’t piling up the points like he did the last two years. Another young Roush racer, Joey Logano, also was testing at NHMS in June and he was asked why it seems so difficult for new drivers to break into the top 10.

“Because they’re Cup racers. It’s the best of the best,” Logano said. “It’s tough to break in there.”

Stenhouse, naturally, knows he’s racing against the best, but that still doesn’t alleviate the frustration he feels about his performance so far this season. He can, however, find some relief knowing that he’s already overcome one shaky transition. In 2010, his first full year racing Nationwide, Stenhouse crashed in four of the first 10 races and was replaced by Brian Ickler for three races.

“That’s what we’re kind of falling back on,” Stenhouse said. “Our rookie season this year is not near as bad as our rookie season in Nationwide. So there’s some positive things going on and we’re looking forward to being better at the end of this year, going back to tracks for the second time and just really learning, and carry some momentum into next year, as well.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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