Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 2011 Nationwide Series champion who sits second in points after five races this year. We spoke with Stenhouse Jr. prior to the Bristol Nationwide race.
SBN: What percent of the races from your life and career can you remember?
RSJ: Man, I can remember a lot. It's funny, I can talk to Dad about races we ran, or I can remember some races he's raced when I was there working on the car. I'm sure other athletes are the same, where they can remember what pitches they threw or what plays they ran. It's weird. It's almost got to be 65, 70 percent, I would say.
SBN: So you can even remember some random dirt race from five years ago?
RSJ: Yeah, it's odd. You have those races that stand out – even go-kart races that you can go back to in your mind.
SBN: What was the first win you ever got in any type of racing?
RSJ: I was probably 3 years old, and I was probably racing bicycles. And then I think we won our first three go-kart races when I was 6.
SBN: Really? How'd you do that?
RSJ: We had three practice nights – one every week – and we went out one night and my dad was like, "OK, this is going to be a loose race car." And he'd make it really loose, and I'd go out there and drive it and drive it. Then the next time, he was like, "OK, this is going to be a really tight race car." And I'd go out and drive it and drive it – just so I could get it in my head what those felt like.
Then the third time, we went out there and got it fast, got it where it drove great. And so we won our first three races.
SBN: Do you remember how you celebrated afterward?
RSJ: Oh, I don't really celebrate too much.
SBN: No ice cream or anything?
RSJ: Nah. I still don't celebrate that much.
SBN: Who is a clean driver in the Nationwide Series you enjoy racing with?
RSJ: Elliott Sadler races really clean. There was a few times toward the end of last year where I got loose in front of him – I remember Phoenix was one of them – and he just backed off. And when you'd get to the inside of him early in the race, he'd let you go. I feel like I learned a lot racing him for that championship last year, and I'd say he's probably one of the cleanest drivers we've got in the Nationwide Series.
SBN: On the flip side of that, who is a driver who always seems to make it extra hard on you to pass?
RSJ: Justin Allgaier is obviously a tough one. And Trevor (Bayne) is really tough.
SBN: Trevor? Tough on just you or everybody?
RSJ: No, I think on everybody.
SBN: So do you give him a hard time about that?
RSJ: No, I just don't say anything.
RSJ: Yeah. I haven't said anything. I think my crew chief has said something to him.
SBN: What's your personal code of conduct on the track?
RSJ: After last year, running for the championship and racing with Elliott, I think (the code) is early in the race, if somebody catches you, let him go. Kasey Kahne did it to me in Vegas – I caught him, and down the straightaway I'm three car lengths behind him and haven't even got to him yet, and he pulls over and lets me go. I think that's really smart if you want to be around at the end of the races, so I try to do that.
The last run – when you know you're good to go on fuel – you kind of step up and you make everybody earn it. I think that's just the way it is. You don't have to come in to pit and you can't make your car any better, so you go out and get all you can get.
I think that's the best way I've found to race everybody out there. I don't want other guys saying, "Man, he's really tough to race" or "Early in the race, he's doing things he shouldn't." Especially when we're racing with the Cup guys over (in Nationwide); when you go over (to Cup), you want to have that same respect you do over here.
SBN: Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that represent a change in mentality for you? You used to race much harder early in the races.
RSJ: Yeah, I mean, I think I raced probably too hard every race I got in. So I think it's definitely changed.
SBN: Do you have a mental list of people you owe for payback?
RSJ: Definitely. There's a lot of people that helped get us where we are today, and ––
SBN: No, no. I meant like drivers who have screwed you over on the track and you need to pay them back.
RSJ: Oh, revenge! That kind of payback. You know, right now, I think we're all square. I don't think there is anybody that I owe anything to. And my debts are paid up – I don't think I have any against me that I know of. So I feel like we're pretty neutral right now.
SBN: Who is a driver from the past you'd like to team up with if you could turn back time?
RSJ: I would probably go with David Pearson. A lot of people say he drove really hard, and that's kind of more my style. I think that would be cool to have somebody to relate to that kind of drives the same.
SBN: What's the last time you got nervous about anything?
RSJ: I really don't get nervous too much. I was at X Games in Aspen and got nervous for (snowmobiler) Heath Frisby after talking to him, since he was going to do the front flip. I was standing there, and I can remember being nervous. I was like, "Man, I'm nervous – and I don't ever get nervous!"
But as far as being nervous for myself, the Chili Bowl always seems to be nerve-wracking. It's so small and everybody can see exactly what you're doing. So if there's anytime I'm nervous in a race car, I'd say that would be it.
SBN: So you didn't even get nervous before your first Daytona 500 start last month?
RSJ: Nah, everything was good. I was kicked back, relaxed. I'm pretty easy-going.
SBN: You guys do lots of appearances and autograph signings, and I know sometimes there can be awkward moments with fans. Care to share a story about such a moment?
RSJ: You always run into something. I had this one lady who asked me to sign her shirt, and she said, "Hey, I need your phone number for my daughter." And she was on me and on me about it. She wasn't kidding! So I signed her shirt and she said, "Can you put your number on there?" So I said, "Yeah, yeah, no problem." It was on the back and she couldn't see it – so I just wrote my car number.
And then I had a fan last night who wanted me to crash Danica. They were like, "Hey, will you crash the green car?" I said, "Which green car?" They said, "The only one with a girl driving it." I said, "No, probably not."
So it gets awkward, because people are talking to you and you just know other people are listening to hear your reaction.
SBN: If you had to choose a NASCAR job after you're done driving and you could only do one of these, would you rather be a broadcaster or a high-ranking official?
RSJ: I feel like I'd rather be a Joe Balash or John Darby (NASCAR series directors). I enjoy being around the cars, and that way I wouldn't really say anything that would get me in trouble on TV. I feel like when you're a broadcaster, you're putting it out there for the fans; in the garage, you're here with the racers – and I think that would be closer to what I enjoy.
SBN: What's a question you are asked a lot and you're tired of answering?
RSJ: "How do you go to the bathroom?" Well, you obviously don't stop during the race, so you would think they would know the answer. I mean, I'm not going to hold it if I have to go.
SBN: I've been asking each driver to give me a question for the next guy, but last week Ryan Newman just said, "Ask him 'How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?'"
RSJ: Of course he would do that.
SBN: Anyway, can you give me a good question for the next guy?
RSJ: Hmm... (thinks for awhile) Let me think about it. I'll get back to you on that, because I want to do a good one.
*** A day goes by. Roughly 36 hours later, via phone... ***
RSJ: OK, I got one. Ask them one thing they always like to do when they get into some of these cities for race weekend. Like what's an activity they enjoy doing in Phoenix or places like that?
SBN: Thanks, you got it.