Championship of lasts for Stenhouse Jr.

Thinking back to where Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was at this time two years ago, it’s quite amazing what the driver from Mississippi has accomplished.

By now, the story of him being benched by car owner Jack Roush midway through the 2010 season is well known. Yet, it still seems quite remarkable that he was able to turn a situation like that into a positive.

Just last season, Stenhouse Jr. put together a consistent season to wrap up his first Nationwide Series championship before season ending race reached its halfway point.

That rightfully made Stenhouse Jr. the favorite for the 2012 crown, competing with arguably on of the most competitive fields in the recent history of the Nationwide Series.

But the first half of the season didn’t get off to the start Stenhouse Jr. would have hoped for.

He was able to win three early races at Las Vegas, Texas and Iowa, but mechanical failures left him trailing Elliott Sadler, the very driver he raced for the title in 2011, in the series point standings.

During the summer stretch of the season, it looked as though the 2012 Nationwide Series championship was the thing that nobody wanted to win as strange mistake after strange mistake kept happening to the championship contenders.

But when crunch time came upon them, it was the championship experience of Stenhouse Jr.—and a little bit of good ole’ racing luck— that shined through and helped carry him to the championship.

“It’s really neat,” said Stenhouse Jr. after becoming the fifth driver in Nationwide Series history to win back-to-back championships.

“It’s these guys behind me that do it all the time. It’s really cool to be up here and drive these cars for Jack (Roush), for everybody who puts their heart and soul into this.”

By now, it’s common knowledge that Stenhouse Jr. will not be returning to the Nationwide Series to defend his championship in 2013. Instead, he will replace Matt Kenseth in the No.17 in the Sprint Cup Series full-time and compete for Rookie of the Year honors.

When the move was announced back in June, many thought it was a possibility that some of Stenhouse Jr.’s Nationwide Series crew would move up to the Cup level with Stenhouse Jr.

But if there was one person that everyone thought would move up for sure, it would be crew chief Mike Kelly.

That turned out to not be the case as Scott Graves will be Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when he embarks full-time on the Sprint Cup tour next year, a decision partially made by Kelly who opted to stay in the Nationwide Series to work with Trevor Bayne as family matters prioritized Kelly’s decision.

“These guys have done an awesome job,” said Stenhouse Jr. “Mike’s been a great crew chief to work with, but more than anything to me, he’s a great friend.

“We spent a lot of time on the road together and I can’t ask for a better crew. Maybe they can make it three-in-a-row next year.”

Prior to the start of the race, Kelly showed a lot of emotion when asked about his final race with Stenhouse Jr. during an ESPN interview.

Kelly’s answers were concise, but showed his emotions of seeing his working relationship with Stenhouse Jr. come to a close.

After the race, Kelly was happy to have won the championship, but you could still hear the emotion in his voice.

“It all started in 2010 when we watched the banquet from the floor when Ricky won Rookie of the Year, and he said, ‘Next year, we gotta sit up there, and we did,'” said Kelly. “Last year we sat up there and said, ‘We don’t ever want to sit out there again.’

“Lot of good times this year and it’s been a lot of fun.”

While the future looks bright for Stenhouse Jr. as a rising star on the Sprint Cup level and Kelly looks to be one of the top-flight crew chiefs in the Nationwide Series, there comes a time when success must go their separate ways. We saw it with Kirk Shelmerdine and the late Dale Eanhardt, and we saw it with Ray Evernharm and Jeff Gordon. That’s the way racing works, you constantly have to find new people to continue success.

However, the bond over winning championships together between Kelly and Stenhouse Jr. is surely something the two will never forget.