By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott

While a lot of attention was focused on changes in the point system and the addition of the wild card to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a quieter rule change in 2011 served to shake things up in a big way. 

 

The list of recent NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) champions includes Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick. You have to dig around a little to find what you might consider an exclusively-Nationwide Series driver who last won the title. 

 

In January 2011, NASCAR announced that individual drivers would be championship-eligible in only one of its three top series and must declare which title they were competing for. 

 

While we still saw guys like Busch, Harvick and Keselowski out there racing – and winning – in the NNS and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (NCWTS), the head table at those two series’ awards banquet was likely to feature at least happy one new face. But the move paid off spectacularly, and we got two. 

 

There was a time not so very long ago when some might have considered Ricky Stenhouse Jr. somewhat of a menace. 

 

Stenhouse hails from relatively small Olive Branch, Miss. (population around 32,000), but during his rookie season in 2010, he didn’t exactly live up to his hometown’s reputation for extending the hand of peace. Rather, he drove his Roush Fenway Racing Fords so fiercely and competitively that they often ended up in the garage well before the end of the race. Things got so bad that team co-owner Jack Roush went so far as to remove his rambunctious young driver from the car for a while, treating him to a little “time-out,” NASCAR-style. 

 

Some kids rebel, but others learn their lesson. When Stenhouse returned to the track, things changed. He re-channeled his energy and overcame the largest point deficit in series history to earn the title of Sunoco Rookie of the Year. He followed it up with two wins and 16 top-five finishes in 2011, and on Nov. 19, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. beat runner-up Elliott Sadler by 45 points to officially become a NASCAR champion, at the age of 24.

 

“Man, it's unbelievable,” he said after the race. “There’s a lot of people that worked really hard for this. My family, they've sacrificed a lot; Jack Roush, all these guys on our team. They were with us when we were struggling, and they never gave up last year and really believed in me.  Everyone has worked really hard and rallied together to be a team effort.

 

“It'll be a good homecoming for sure. Got a lot of people back there that are really supportive of what we're doing. The whole school system, just everybody down there. It's really cool to have a community behind you like that.”

 

Stenhouse celebrated his championship at the Nationwide Series awards ceremony on Nov. 21, and then, probably the first driver in history to ever thank the school system took his trophy home and shared it with everyone, serving as grand marshal for the Olive Branch Christmas parade. 

 

Over in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, veteran drivers often carry the day. On Nov. 18, however, they got schooled by a guy in many cases young enough to be their son, as 21-year-old Austin Dillon became the youngest champion in series history.