Title race tied, defending champ seeks focus

Thursday, Nov. 08, 2012

Maybe it shows a driver and a series that are getting better.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a vastly improved driver – and one with impressive statistics to back it up – over a year ago, but he is having a far more difficult time locking up a second Nationwide Series championship.

In 2011, Stenhouse won his first NASCAR title behind a pair of victories and a 45-point margin over runner-up Elliott Sadler.

Entering Saturday’s Great Clips 200 at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz., Stenhouse and Sadler are tied with 1,170 points each with two races remaining.

Stenhouse has six wins this season and Sadler has four.

“Last year it was cool getting our first (championship), and then to be able to back it up, I think that would be a big accomplishment,” Stenhouse said.

“I think it's been tough. I feel like we’ve performed better this year, but we found ourselves still behind much of the year.”

It seems strange, given Stenhouse's win margin.

“I think last year, I think I made less mistakes actually. I think this year we're in more contention to win races, and so I think sometimes I lose track of that we've got a championship to win, and I go out to win races,” he said.

“We’ve kind of got to get back to last year where we don't make any mistakes the last races. But I don't think it's any easier. I think it's actually a little tougher to get your second one in a row.

“But we’re up for the challenge.”

The 24-year-old native of Olive Branch, Miss., already knows he won’t be returning to Nationwide next season – at least not on a fulltime basis – so this season may be Stenhouse’s last chance at another title for some time.

Stenhouse will move up to the Sprint Cup Series next season, driving the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse will take over for Matt Kenseth, who is moving to Joe Gibbs Racing.

With the points race all tied up, could there be any more pressure with only two races remaining?

Stenhouse insists he’s faced it all season.

“I think it doesn't really come from outside pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself and on our race team,” he said.

“I think if you make a mistake, it had better be early in the race so you can bounce back from it. But there's definitely a lot of pressure on everybody running for a championship, and it doesn't really matter if it's a Nationwide Series championship or your local dirt track series championship.

“It’s tough to win championships no matter what. So yeah, that pressure is there.”

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