Second to None: Dillon, Stenhouse Avoid Slumps, Seize First National Series Titles

Cathy Elliott Friday, Dec 16 1459

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.

Dillon’s grandfather – and in perhaps the most popular case of nepotism in NASCAR, also his team owner -- is Richard Childress. Fans who for years have called for the retirement of the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s legendary No. 3 barely made a squawk as Dillon raced it all season and will continue to do so in the Nationwide Series next year.

NASCAR is a cyclical sport, and when the tandem brought home a championship, it also seemed to bring with it both approbation and a closure of sorts. In fact, it may have been the most feel-good moment of the season.

Dillon described the championship as the “best feeling I've ever had in my entire life. I'm so happy for my grandfather. He's got two champs this year,” he said. (Austin’s younger brother Ty won the 2011 ARCA Series title.) “You can't ask to go out of the Truck Series any better than this, coming out as a champion.”

He went on to perhaps give us a little too much information, when he said, “You get to spray champagne everywhere. You're on top of the world. It's the best feeling in the world. You stink real bad. Darrell Waltrip told me the best feeling in the world is going home stinking and having a trophy in your lap, and we were able to do that.”

Mr. Childress gave the championship high marks. “It's got to be right up there at the top. It's so special when you're family. Our whole family is involved, and I remember the very first championship with Dale Earnhardt,” he said. “I had the same feeling tonight watching Austin, my grandson. It's just so special to have the family and know how hard all of them worked.”

Tony Stewart’s performance in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was astounding by any standards. His battle with Carl Edwards kept us mesmerized for 10 weeks, and is something that will likely go down in history as one of the greatest championship runs of all time.

But if you will permit a little end-of-season editorializing, it is worth pointing out that Stewart and Dillon are separated in age by nearly two decades. So if you are not routinely watching the NNS and NCWTS races, please make it your NASCAR New Year’s resolution to do so. Like investing in a start-up company whose stock splits again and again, it may seem a little gamey at first, but in the final payoff, the dividends are well worth it. They have the sweet smell of success.