I don’t write about NASCAR nearly as much as I’d like to, so I was pretty stoked when I was told that 2011 Nationwide Series Champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. admitted that With Leather was his favorite sports blog on the Internet and he’d love to talk to us. Granted, that’s not verbatim and it may have gone more like, “You do what with leather now?” but after speaking with NASCAR’s top up-and-comer, I’m convinced that he may one day have a giant Lobster Dog on the hood of his car.
Which car? The legendary No. 6, originally driven by Mark Martin and the debut whip of the Roush/Fenway Racing team. Those are some undoubtedly big shoes to fill, but Ricky’s resume strongly suggests that he’s up to the challenge. Tomorrow marks his first Sprint Cup run at the Daytona 500 (1 PM ET on Fox) – the Super Bowl of motor sports, as a man with a Dale Earnhardt tattoo once told me – and that’s where you, our loyal-yet-rambunctious commenters come in.
Ricky is our official driver, so that means if he finishes better than the other drivers that have been assigned to other, less spectacular sites, one of you lucky animals is going to win an all-expenses paid trip to attend the Sprint All Star race in Charlotte, N.C. on May 19. So bring your commenting A-game and let’s cheer on the No. 6 car and our boy Ricky.
In the meantime, Ricky and I spent a few minutes discussing his ambitions, celebrity status, Twitter etiquette, when he’ll start dating Kim Kardashian, and, of course, the Daytona 500’s Grand(est) Marshal… Kate Upton.
With Leather: You’ve already had great success on the Nationwide circuit, having won a Rookie of the Year title and the series championship last year. Do you openly remind other drivers that you’re a badass or do you prefer to let them figure that out for themselves?
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: I just want to win as many races as I can and earn the respect of the other guys out there. I’ve had a great team and we had some good finishes down the stretch last year, so I want to keep building on that and hopefully they’ll take notice.
WL: On Sunday, you’ll be driving the No. 6 car for Roush in the Daytona 500. I was a huge fan of Mark Martin back in the day, so why should I accept you as the man who will bring the No. 6 car back to prominence?
RS: That’s great. It’s a huge honor. I feel like we have a great team that can succeed and we know what we have to do to get better out there to be successful.
(Ricky will only be racing the No. 6 part-time at the Sprint Cup level, and he’s more focused on defending his 2011 Nationwide title and gaining experience to make a full-time jump to the main circuit in 2013. So technically I can say that I interviewed him before he was a star. *flips scarf*)
WL: One of my favorite aspects of NASCAR is the fan loyalty and the vilification of rival drivers. What’s your reputation like among other drivers and have any of the older, big name drivers offered you any advice?
RS: I like to think that I get along with all of the other drivers out there. I’m still meeting a lot of guys, and I’m learning from some of them. Tony Stewart is a guy I drove for in the past, growing up, and he’s given me pointers on the media side, about making sure I’m nice. He can do whatever he wants, but I’ve got to try to keep everybody on my good side. I’ve got to give respect to the veterans out there, because they can make it easier.
WL: Are you currently feuding with any other drivers? If not, can I make up a feud for you? For instance, I’ve never really liked that Kurt Busch guy, so we could say that he wears coats made out of puppies.
RS: Not really, I try to keep everybody on my good side out there. I don’t want to have to be looking over my shoulder. But they generally happen a few times during a season and they last a few weeks, so you’ll have them. My teammate and I got into it a little last year and we worked it out, but every now and then you’ll have a feud.
WL: You hail from the small town of Olive Branch, Mississippi. Are you the most famous person to ever live in Olive Branch?
RS: I would have to think so, but I’m not a hundred percent sure. When I go back home to Mississippi, I feel like they’ve really embraced what I’m doing. They didn’t really teach us much about celebrities and our town’s history in school, so I’m not completely positive. But I think that I am the only one, which is a pretty big honor.
WL: Have they declared a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. day yet? If not, do you hold a grudge against the mayor and town council? Because we can totally start a campaign for someone else.
RS: Not that I know of.
WL: You’re on Twitter and you seem to interact nicely with your fans. Do you think that athletes should have to take a test about what is or isn’t acceptable to share with the world before they’re allowed to have their own Twitter account? Do you have someone who is regularly in your ear to remind you to keep it smart and clean?
RS: Oh definitely, everybody at Roush/Fenway’s marketing side makes sure that we stay true to what’s going on and not jump out of line. Obviously you see what happens when people do step out of line and you don’t want to be a part of that. If they don’t like something, they’ll make sure you take it off.
WL: After some Twitter stalking, I noticed that you attended this year’s X Games. Are you into the extreme side of sports as well?
RS: Obviously, I grew up in Mississippi, but I did some skateboarding in my time and rode some motorcycles and dirt bikes a lot. I’ve done some snowmobile jumping, too, and the action sports are something that I’ve always enjoyed and always wanted to do.
WL: Have you had a chance to meet any celebrities while you’re out there racing? I imagine that this weekend is pretty hectic, what with the popularity and magnitude of the Daytona 500.
RS: I’ve met a lot of people along the way, especially guys like Ricky Carmichael and Shaun White, and those extreme sports guys. But being with Roush/Fenway, I’ve also had a chance to meet guys like Josh Beckett, and it’s really interesting to speak to them and get insight on their side of the sports world.
WL: I also noticed that you have quite a flair for Western footwear. What’s up with all the boots?
RS: I’m a huge boots guy. One of my sponsors is Tony Lama, and they make the greatest boots so I have a ton of them.
WL: Jinxes aside, your resume suggests that we should expect big things from you in the Sprint series. Are you ever worried that you’ll become successful quickly and Kim Kardashian will tell people she wants to date you?
RS: I don’t worry too much about that. I don’t really know that I’m successful enough, but if she ever did say that she wanted to date me, I think that would mean that I’ve done pretty well.
WL: Aside from you – because you’re now the official favorite driver of With Leather – who are some other up and coming drivers that we should know about?
RS: There are so many guys, but especially someone like Trevor Bayne, who is my teammate and a really good friend. It’s just hard to choose because we’ve got guys coming in here and there, and there are just so many good drivers.
WL: If you weren’t racing for a living, what other career do you think you’d be doing?
RS: I don’t know what I think I’d be doing, because it’s hard to think of myself not racing. I’d probably be riding dirt bikes or something like that. I know what I’d want to be doing, and that’s being a country music singer. The problem with that, though, is that I don’t have a good voice, so I don’t really think that’s an option.
WL: On Sunday, perhaps even more important than any race storyline and maybe even the 500 itself, Kate Upton will serve as the Grand Marshal.
RS: Oh yeah, that’s huge. She opens us up to an even greater audience and that’s very important to us.
WL: Sure, but will you tell her that I said hi?
RS: Of course.
(Images via Getty and Ricky’s Twitter, special thanks to the fine folks at NASCAR.)