Ricky Stenhouse Jr. not worried about future, just improving

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits impatience led to too many mistakes last season. Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. swears he doesn't know if Roush Fenway Racing has an option at the end of this year to keep him or send him packing. He swears he doesn't care.

"Freaking out about it is not going to really do anything," the 28-year-old Stenhouse said. "So I've never really been one to get super excited. I've never been one to freak out very much.

"I just kind of stay even keel and just go about my business. I feel really good about the relationship I've had with Jack [Roush] over the years and this company."

The relationship might not have soured, but Stenhouse's performance hasn't lived up to its potential in the last two seasons. After winning back-to-back Xfinity Series titles, Stenhouse finished 19th in the 2013 standings as a Sprint Cup rookie.

He failed to build on that respectable rookie year, finishing 27th in 2014 and 25th in 2015 with just one top-5 and three top-10 finishes last year. His average starting spot and average finish have gotten worse in each of his three years of Cup racing. He has not won in 112 starts and has led just 38 laps -- only three laps the last two years.

"We're pretty committed to working together to make this a successful partnership," Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said. "There is a high degree of confidence we will show a significant improvement this year.

"If not, we'll all have to sit down and figure it out because we're not going to accept the level we were at last year."

Actually, Stenhouse would at least temporarily accept the level he raced at over the final 11 races in 2015. He rattled off seven consecutive top-20 finishes -- with an average of 13th -- before accidents at Martinsville and Phoenix brought his average finish over those final 11 down to 19th. Still, he could see the improvement from a 28.4 average finish from over the first 25 races of 2015.

"If we can maintain 15th, 18th place to start the season, I think by the end of the season we will be running up front back where we want to be," Stenhouse said.

Stenhouse has that feeling because last year, under first-year crew chief Nick Sandler, he actually got better during the season, which he said wasn't the case the previous two years. Granted, they couldn't go much lower than where they started, but Stenhouse is feeling optimistic after Roush Fenway added two engineers with management or crew chief experience before 2015 -- Kevin Kidd (formerly of Joe Gibbs Racing) and Mark McArdle (Richard Childress Racing) -- and then brought on aerodynamicists Kurt Romberg (Hendrick Motorsports) and Kent Day (Michael Waltrip Racing) to head the simulation efforts this offseason.

But Stenhouse has also had to look in the mirror. Stenhouse and Sandler had some heart-to-hearts this offseason. They talked and gave each other honest grades for their performances. Stenhouse, like the rest of the Roush stable, needs the front of the car to turn better, but he knows that doesn't happen overnight and it requires him to, frankly, remain focused on the track.

"Even though I wasn't happy with the way the cars were performing last year, I tried to do too much and got frustrated instead of staying even keel like I normally do," Stenhouse said. "It was getting frustrated trying to do too much and making mistakes and crashing.

"When he would make a race call, I would kind of like to second-guess him instead of trusting that it was the best call for us to do instead of focusing on just driving the car."

If Stenhouse can take any solace from last year, it's that his Roush Fenway teammates didn't a whole lot better. Greg Biffle finished 20th in the standings; Trevor Bayne was 29th.

From the outside looking in, it would appear that for Stenhouse, this must rate as a make-or-break year. If he has another year outside the top-20 in points, it would seem to be in everyone's best interests for him to part ways with RFR.

Stenhouse wouldn't say that this is the year he must perform, that he has reached a point where his upcoming results will determine his future in this sport.

"It's a super important year for everybody at Roush Fenway," he said. "I put a lot of pressure on myself to just go out and perform every week for myself and just because it is not very fun, not performing well.

"Every year is important, and I feel really good about where I am at Roush Fenway and the support I get from Jack and Ford and everybody in the organization. As far as this being a more important year than last year, I don't really think any year is more important than the other."

Stenhouse also doesn't want to hear that he might be better off somewhere else. He was a successful sprint-car racer who drove for Tony Stewart before going stock-car racing with Roush.

He admits that people have told him he would be better off getting out of Roush Fenway as soon as he can.

"I've definitely heard that," Stenhouse said. "I tell [those people] that Jack gave me my start. I wouldn't even be in this position if Jack wasn't running me unsponsored in the Nationwide Series and the ARCA Series. He spent a lot of money and time and effort into letting me figure out stock cars and ultimately winning races and winning championships.

"I feel like I owe it to Jack to stick around and make sure we get this place back where it needs to be. He risked a lot paying for me to come drive his race cars. And that means a ton to me. And Jack's always been a huge pusher of mine and believer of what I can do."

And if he stops believing?

"If [my deal] is up, it's up," Stenhouse said. "If they decide not to do it, they decide not to do it. If that time comes that I need to look for something else, I will. I don't really think about it."