Encore: Can Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Now Join One of NASCAR'S Most Exclusive Clubs?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2012

What better way for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to start his Sprint Cup career then by ending his Nationwide Series career with back-to-back championships.
What better way for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to start his Sprint Cup career then by ending his Nationwide Series career with back-to-back championships.Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. almost wrecked his way out of his Nationwide Series ride in 2010 by crashing out in four of the season's first 10 races.

So much so that team owner Jack Roush not only literally sat Stenhouse down for a long talk, Roush then figuratively backed it up by sitting his young driver for two races to ponder what his future both with RFR and in NASCAR may or not be.

Roush got his message across to Stenhouse in his own inimitable way, and the Olive Branch, Miss., native responded—not only saving but also definitely altering the direction of his career.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Stenhouse responded to Roush's prodding and roared back, not only winning last year's Nationwide Series championship, but also repeating that feat Saturday at Homestead Miami Speedway.

For a guy who was almost out of a job 2.5 years ago, Stenhouse is once again on top of the Nationwide world—and ready to go on to his next challenge: he'll replace the departing Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Ford in the Sprint Cup Series next season.

Now is the time to say bravo for a great season—make that two great seasons in a row—and best of luck in racing full time with the best drivers in the NASCAR world.

But starting with tomorrow, this year's championship will be old news as Stenhouse begins preparing in earnest for his switch to the Cup series.

And while Stenhouse has done outstanding in his Nationwide stint, let's hope he doesn't think the next chapter of his racing career will be an easy read.

It won't.

Stenhouse will face the same kind of bumps that almost derailed his Nationwide career—only those in Sprint Cup will likely be more plentiful and more painful.

But if Stenhouse thinks what he did the last two seasons will make winning a Cup championship easier due to what he went through to win the Nationwide crowns, he may want to think again.

Sure, there have been a number of outstanding drivers who have won the Nationwide (and before that, Busch) Series championships. The list reads like a Who's Who of current-day Cup stars, including Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (twice), Kevin Harvick (twice), Martin Truex Jr. (twice) and Greg Biffle (who is the only driver in NASCAR history to win both a Nationwide/Busch and trucks series championship).

But there's some bad news, and there's no easy way to say this, so brace yourself, Ricky:

Winning the Nationwide Series championship once—let alone twice—does not automatically translate into eventually winning a Sprint Cup championship.

In fact, heading into Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, the season finale and championship-deciding race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, only one former Nationwide/Busch champion has ever gone on to also win a Cup crown in his career.

That would be Bobby Labonte, who won the then-Busch Series title in 1991, and then needed nine more seasons before capturing his one and only Cup championship in 2000.

That's it. No other driver has ever done the Cup/junior league double.

(Of course, if Keselowski holds off Jimmie Johnson in Sunday's race to win the championship, he'll become only the second member of a very exclusive club that has seen Labonte as its only member to date. Edwards almost did it last season, only to lose the Cup crown in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart, who vacates his one-year reign as Cup champ on Sunday.)

It's not going to be easy for Stenhouse in the Cup series. Not only is the competition level significantly harder and the quality of drivers far superior to those in Nationwide racing, Stenhouse will also be immediately met with comparisons of following in Kenseth's footsteps. After 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, Sunday will be Kenseth's last race there; he moves to Joe Gibbs Racing and will race the No. 20 Toyota in 2013.

It's hard enough making the jump from the Nationwide to Cup series, but when you also have to follow a legendary driver like Kenseth—who won the Cup championship in 2003 and is a two-time Daytona 500 winner (including this year)—your work is cut out for you indeed.

The one thing Stenhouse must keep reminding himself is not to get down too much when he struggles—and he will, it's almost inevitable. When the going gets rough, he mustn't fall back to the not-so-long-ago era where he nearly cost himself his job in 2010.

A lot of hard work awaits Stenhouse as he moves to full-time Cup driver in 2013 (Danica Patrick will be faced with the same arduous route as she also moves full-time to the Sprint Cup circuit next season).

We've seen the way Stenhouse responded to Roush's prodding once, with the end result ultimately being back-to-back Nationwide crowns.

After achieving that, it's unlikely Stenhouse will need much prodding from this point on. He's proven he knows how to deliver.

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