PLACERVILLE, Calif.—On Ricky Stenhouse Jr.s’ quest to win the 2011 Nationwide Series title, he relied on a source outside of the Roush Fenway Racing ranks—defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Sure, Stenhouse had plenty of Roush teammates to rely on for mentoring. The RFR roster was stout, with 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth and former NXS champions Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
But Stenhouse will never forget how Johnson graciously invested his time in the then-23-year-old kid from Olive Branch, Miss.
“For me, personally, I think back to 2011-2012, he would reach out just to give me advice. I was trying to win a Nationwide Series Championship at the time. Jimmie would call and give advice—unsolicited—without even going to ask.
“My first Cup start, in 2011, he went out really early in qualifying—I think the go-or-go-homers went out at the end. I’m getting ready to go and he comes walking back out in street clothes just to give me advice on my first Cup start in qualifying at Charlotte.
“That just kind of shows what kind of driver he is and what he does off of the racetrack, what he does for this sport and how he treats the people he cares about.”
Johnson’s mentoring didn’t stop with Stenhouse’s first Nationwide title. He continued to help the young driver as he attempted to win consecutive titles. Midway through the 2012 season, Stenhouse was third in the standings. Over the final 10 races, Stenhouse posted an average finish of 5.1, bolstered by three wins and five top-five finishes.
“For me, it was huge,” Stenhouse said of Johnson’s continued counsel. “In 2012, we were pretty far back in the championship coming down the stretch. He was like, “Stick to what you know. Continue to plug away. It’s never over.’ We ended up coming from behind and winning the championship that year.
“In my career, it’s been pretty cool that a seven-time champ would reach out like that when I really didn’t have an affiliation with him or anything, as far as that goes. So that’s always been pretty cool.
“We all knew it was coming at some point. But with what he has accomplished in the sport, you really don’t have to talk a lot about that. He’s done it all.”
Stenhouse will also venture out on the next chapter of his NASCAR Cup career in 2020 with JTG-Daugherty Racing. While leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 11 seasons was bittersweet, the 32-year-old is ready for a new adventure.
“I’m never really too sentimental about the things that I do,” Stenhouse said. “But I was talking to Jack (Roush) before the race and he said, ‘I really hope we haven’t lost respect for each other,’ and I said, ‘Not at all.’ I would never be in this position to do this for a living—not only myself, but to have a World of Outlaws team and employ people. I’m very thankful for everything we were able to accomplish together.
“I wish we would have been able to do more. It was cool to get Jack back to Victory Lane a couple of times in 2017. That meant a lot to me. He was used to going to Victory Lane so often, for so long in the Cup series, it’s tough that we weren’t able to continue that like we did on the Xfinity side. We just didn’t seem to progress very well. It sucks, but I’m really looking forward to the future.”
After running the Hangtown 100 USAC Midget race at Placerville Speedway on Wednesday night, Stenhouse couldn’t wait to return to North Carolina to start working with the No. 37 JTG Daugherty team to get a start for next year.
“I really love the family atmosphere at JTG and hanging out with Tad and Jodi (Geschickter, owners) and Ernie (Cope, GM) and everyone over there. It’s been a short while that we’ve all been together, obviously, but I feel like really good things can come out of what they’ve built over there. I’m really looking forward to that as well.”