NEWS
04/11/2012 05:42 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

NASCAR Nationwide champ Stenhouse hopes to be road race ace on day

MONTREAL - Driving on road courses rather than oval tracks is still an adventure for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. but he hopes one day to be good enough to win at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

The 24-year-old hasn't finished higher than 24th in two attempts at the NAPA Auto Parts 200, the only NASCAR Nationwide series event held in Canada.

But each time he takes away a little more knowledge of the straightaways and chicanes, heavy braking and quick accelerations that are the realities of road racing, and what make it so different from circling the short tracks that are the staple of stock car racing.

"At some point I think I'll get to a point where we can challenge and win," Stenhouse said Wednesday at an event to promote the race's sixth edition Aug. 18 at the Montreal track. "When we race here, we don't look at it as a loss.

"We use all the practice time we can so I can try to get better."

There are only three road courses on the Nationwide schedule, and many teams import experienced road drivers to replace their regulars for them.

In Montreal, that usually gives former open wheel aces like Jacques Villeneuve, Patrick Carpentier and Ron Fellows a chance to drive the heavy stock cars in an event that has become known in its first five editions starting in 2007 for frequent, spectacular pile-ups.

It is also considered one of the best draws in the Nationwide series, although the organizers do not announce attendance.

Despite a background of dirt or paved ovals, Stenhouse wants to be in on the fun, too. For now, he waits at the back for crashes and mishaps to thin the field and try to get near the front at the end.

"This is one of the toughest races, with the braking and the hairpin, but it's fun," he said. "You see the stands are full and people are standing along the fences and up in trees.

"Drivers like to see fans in the stands."

Stenhouse is the reigning champion of the Nationwide series, one step below NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship. And he is in the hunt for another title after five races this year.

The Memphis, Tenn., native already has a victory and is second in drivers' standings to veteran Elliott Sadler, a former Sprint Cup regular.

But while Sadler has taken a step back in his career, Stenhouse is on his way up.

He hopes to get into seven or eight Sprint Cup events this year and move full-time into the upper circuit in 2013, although much will depend on finding sponsors.

His team, Roush Fenway Racing, was caught in a sponsorship crunch this year and may not have backing for both of its cars in all the Nationwide races this season.

The team runs three Sprint Cup cars — series leader Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth — and hopes to add a fourth for Stenhouse in its No. 6 car, the slot occupied for 35 victories by Matt Martin between 1988 and 2006.

Stenhouse drove the No. 6 Ford at the Daytona 500 this year, finishing 20th while Kenseth won in the No. 17 car.

"There are no promises," Stenhouse said. "Jack Roush and I have a good relationship.

"We're focused on the same goal, for Roush Fenway to succeed. I've expressed my interest in running full-time next year, and some this year, and we'll see how it goes."

For now, he's set on taking another Nationwide title. Last season, he posted his first two victories and was top-10 in 26 of 34 starts. But this year, he's the target rather than the hunter.

"It was difficult last year," he said. "It's going to be just as difficult but I feel we're better prepared as a race team after doing it once.

"We're more prepared to be more consistent that last year and to win a championship. I think we're in a better situation as a race team."

Stenhouse made a quick stop in Montreal and had to leave right away for Dallas, where the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway runs on Friday.

As he spoke, workers outside were erecting the temporary bleachers for the Canadian Grand Prix Formula One race scheduled for June 10.