As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. marched to his first NASCAR title last season, the drumbeat grew louder as to whether he deserved a ride at the highest level of the sport. That opportunity has now come, as Jack Roush has tabbed him to be Matt Kenseth's successor after Kenseth's departure to what will likely be Joe Gibbs Racing.
It is the chance of a lifetime for Stenhouse Jr., and one I am certain he'll take full advantage of, as he possesses both the talent and the moxie needed to be a consistent and frequent winner in Cup.
The talent part is obvious: In 2011, just his second year in the Nationwide Series, Stenhouse Jr. won two races, amassed 26 top-10s in 34 starts and convincingly drove to the series championship by a 45-point margin over Elliott Sadler. There has been no letup this season, either. Stenhouse Jr. has been to Victory Lane three times, with two of those wins (Las Vegas and Texas) coming in races that were filled with Cup regulars.
As for the moxie part of the equation – and whether Stenhouse Jr. can adjust to everything else that goes along with being a Sprint Cup driver – all one has to do is look back at how Stenhouse Jr. got to where he's at today. Not too long ago, it was easy to think that Stenhouse Jr. didn't belong in NASCAR and that he certainly didn't belong behind the wheel of a car owned by one of the most respected men to walk through a NASCAR garage.
In his 2010 Nationwide Series rookie campaign, the former USAC driver for Tony Stewart had a penchant for turning his cars into a pile of twisted metal, as in nine of the first 12 races Stenhouse Jr. was involved in a wreck of some kind. And that's not including a spin during qualifying at Nashville which resulted in a rarely seen sight in NASCAR – a Jack Roush-owned car being sent home after failing to qualify.
Things were so bad, Roush was forced to bench his promising rookie driver. So instead of competing, Stenhouse Jr. sat for a race and watched from the sidelines.
Some drivers in this situation would pout, quit or a combination of both – but not Stenhouse Jr. He saw the opportunity for what it was and used the week off to collect himself, and when he got the chance to resume his driving career, he pounced on it. He's been a changed driver ever since, easily transforming his critics into firm believers.
Although he might not ever be the same caliber of a driver as the guy he's replacing, and that's an unfair standard to hold Stenhouse Jr. to – after all, Matt Kenseth is a Sprint Cup champion, a 22-time winner in Cup and someone who has twice won the sport's biggest race.
This isn't Joe Gibbs anointing Joey Logano before he was ready and had consistently proved himself. Stenhouse Jr. has established himself, is ready and will deliver. He is going to be a winner in Sprint Cup and while he may have some of the same growing pains as he did when he transitioned to Nationwide, eventually he's going to figure it out.
My guess is sooner rather than later.