Last Wednesday at Talladega Superspeedway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. arrived early for a test of the Ford Fusion version of NASCAR's 2013 race car.
Unexpectedly, Stenhouse beat his team to the track. Heavy fog delayed the arrival of Sprint Cup team planes at the municipal airport adjacent to the speedway.
That didn't stop Stenhouse, who decided to get a head start on the test session by helping to set up his own garage stall.
"The plane was late due to the fog in the area, and I drove down at 5 o'clock in the morning, so I beat everybody there," Stenhouse told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I helped unload the trailer, get it all set up and was ready to go. It's all part of it.
"Good thing I pay attention to how they set up everything when they go testing and things like that. We were able to get a jump start on things."
Stenhouse got his work ethic from his father, an engine builder from Olive Branch, Miss. Stenhouse also got an education in fabricating NASCAR cars in 2010, when team owner Jack Roush compelled him to work in the shop to understand the consequences of a rash of early-season wrecks.
"I grew up working on my own race cars," Stenhouse said. "Dad made me work on the car if I wanted to race. That was just how it was, and if I didn't like it, I could go do something else and not race. I definitely enjoy working on the race cars, definitely enjoy hanging around the guys at the shop and really just showing 'em that I'm as dedicated as they are.
"When I'm needed to help out, it doesn't matter what it is. It could be sweeping the floor in the shop. Whatever they need me to do, I'm there to do it—and I really enjoy it."
Stenhouse is defending the Nationwide Series championship he won last year while preparing to move full-time to the Sprint Cup Series next year. Slated for his fourth Cup start — and first return trip to a track in a Cup car - at Charlotte on Saturday night, Stenhouse finished 11th in his debut at Charlotte last year.
This season he posted a 20th-place result in the Daytona 500 and ran 12th in the Chase race at Dover on Sept. 30.
"I don't really count Daytona as a real race track finish, given that anything can happen there, and we got caught up in a wreck there," Stenhouse said. "I look at the other two and feel pretty good about what we've done. Charlotte I felt good with last year. Dover this year, not exactly how we wanted it to go, but there were a lot of people who didn't have a good day, and we still got a solid finish out of it.
"Our plan at Dover was to not make mistakes, work on the car and get it faster, get closer to the leaders' times throughout the race, and, really, that's what we did and ended up coming home with a 12th."
Preparing for his first full-time Cup season, however, won't distract Stenhouse from the matter at hand — fighting for his second straight Nationwide title. Entering Friday night's Dollar General 300, Stenhouse trailed series leader Elliott Sadler by nine points.
"When I run the Cup car, it doesn't hurt my Nationwide program, I don't feel like, 'cause I know what I need to do in the Nationwide car," said Stenhouse, who also is scheduled to run the Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Qualifying the Cup car after practicing the Nationwide car can get a little bit tricky.
"I saw that at Dover when we overdrove the Cup car in the corner. The horsepower's the main thing. At a place like Charlotte, in the Nationwide car I won't use any brake. In the Cup car, you will use brake, and you have to lift. It's a drastic difference in what you do with the throttle, but all in all, they drive similar. Not exact, but similar."
And given that he's in a title fight in the Nationwide Series, Stenhouse knows how to organize his priorities.
"I think we did a really good job of that at Dover," Stenhouse said. "I'll quit Cup practice early to go make sure I'm in the Nationwide car before practice starts. If I have to stay late in Nationwide, I will. That's our main focus.
"We're doing the Cup deal just to get more experience and more acquainted with the horsepower. Obviously, the cars are going to be different next year. For me, being a race car driver, I just like being on the race track. It doesn't matter what kind of car it is."