By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
7:55 PM CST, November 19, 2011
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. nearly lost his job 18 months ago.
He was finishing near the back of fields and floundering for Roush Fenway Racing. Team owner Jack Roush stuck with him, pushing him in meetings, challenging him at racetracks and dogging him all the time.
It worked wonders - and led to a championship.
Stenhouse won the Nationwide Series title long before the checkered flag dropped at the season finale Saturday. He clinched his first championship about 30 laps into the 200-lap race,
securing the title when six cars officially dropped out of the 300-mile event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For Stenhouse, it was a long time coming.
"They believed in me when we were struggling," Stenhouse said. "Everyone rallied together. It just means the world to bring this championship to Jack."
Stenhouse was running fourth when NASCAR officials announced he had wrapped up the title. He finished second behind Brad Keselowski. Carl Edwards was third, followed by Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler.
Edwards clinched the owner's title for Roush, who is looking to become the first owner in NASCAR history to win both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide championships in the same season. Edwards leads Tony Stewart by three points heading into Sunday's season finale.
Edwards and Stenhouse parked their cars nose to nose and did a double burnout to celebrate.
For Stenhouse, it was something he couldn't have imagined early last season.
"We were down in the dumps," Stenhouse said. "This crew right here, they didn't give up on me. They were with us all through last year and just glad to be here."
Roush said he always believed Stenhouse would turn things around.
"He just wanted it so bad and he was good at doing what he did," Roush said. "He couldn't figure out how big the box was he needed to be in. His dad helped him figure out the limits on the box, as I did. He was ready to come back and run for a championship."
Sadler, who started the race 41 points behind Stenhouse, finished second in the season standings.
Stenhouse knew he held a comfortable lead over Sadler, needing to finish 37th or better to secure the championship a year after earning rookie of the year honors. As expected, tenhouse played it safe although his day was far from trouble free.
The team had communication issues early. Apparently, someone not associated with the team left the push-to-talk button open on a radio, causing problems that eventually got solved by switching channels. Later, with about 70 laps remaining, Stenhouse scraped the wall for the second time.
None of the mishaps did much to dampen Stenhouse's day.
Crew chief Mike Kelley gave Stenhouse the news a little past the halfway point, saying, "All right, man, I got the word. You are the champion."
Kelley knew how many cars were out of the race early an considered telling Stenhouse then. But just as he started the sentence over the radio, he stopped and said, "Keep doing what
He ran near the front much of the race and had the lead late until spinning his tires on a restart and getting stuck in some traffic. Nonetheless, he nearly chased down Keselowski on the final lap, but came up a few car lengths short.
"I was blocking as hard as I could to win that race," Keselowski said. "I think he was a little upset that I was racing him so hard, but I'm not going to give up the win."
Stenhouse and Sadler were the only drivers still eligible for the title.
Stenhouse's guaranteed finishing spot improved just after the green flag as "start and park" cars headed to the garage. Morgan Shepherd, Fain Skinner, Scott Speed and Matt Carter all drove just a few laps before calling it quits. Josh Wise and Chase Miller followed them a few laps later, making it official.
The rest was a mere formality - something few would have imagined 18 months ago.
"I didn't know if he'd be able to survive Jack," Edwards said. "I mean, Jack was just, he was on Ricky. I mean, he was not building Ricky up. He was challenging Ricky every day, and I think
Ricky has shown everyone, myself included, how good he is. ... He's going to be a force to be reckoned with. There's no doubt that Ricky Stenhouse will win tons of Cup races and probably
championships. He's truly that good."
But there were times when it was tough to see, at least for everyone except Roush.
"All of us in this room, it's not your successes that make you better," Edwards said. "Those are nice, but it's the tough times that make you strong and teach you the biggest lessons. ... I wish I had some of those meetings on audio tape or video because he was getting it from all angles. And he just kept getting better and kept working and turned this whole thing around. It's just amazing."
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