(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
AP Sports Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has gone step-by-step in racing.
There were the go-karts as a kid, then midget and sprint cars for Tony Stewart's team before going to ARCA. Once he became a full-time NASCAR Nationwide driver, Stenhouse was the top rookie in 2010 and followed that up with a series championship last season.
The natural progression would next take Stenhouse to NASCAR's highest level on a regular basis.
But not just yet for the up-and-coming driver.
``Honestly, we need to win another (Nationwide) championship, but I feel like to make it successful, I think we need to win at least six races,'' said Stenhouse, who won twice last season. ``I wanted to stay in Nationwide again and learn some more.''
While there was some talk about a Sprint Cup ride with Roush Fenway Racing this season - ``I think Jack (Roush) was kind of pushing for it, but things fell through,'' Stenhouse said - the 24-year-old driver said that wasn't ever really close. He always felt he'd be running Nationwide full-time this season as the defending champion.
``That's definitely what I wanted to do,'' he said. ``In November, after we were done in Homestead, I made that clear that that's what I wanted to do, and told them that I wasn't putting any pressure on them to run full-time Cup in 2012.''
Stenhouse got a memorable first Daytona 500 experience last month in the No. 6 car, finishing every lap and in 20th place in the prime-time Monday night race that included the blown-up jet dryer. The Mississippi native isn't sure what other Cup races he might run this season, but his focus is on the Nationwide Series.
The difficulty of acquiring sponsorship money in a tough economy certainly contributed to Stenhouse not yet making the full-time move to NASCAR's top level. But Stenhouse knows he's still got plenty to learn in stock cars anyway.
``I can tell you everything about a sprint car, but there's so many parts on these stock cars that I'm still not 100 percent familiar with,'' he said. ``I've been learning what I need for the race car to go fast. Now I want to learn the setups and things that like. I want to be able to come into the pits and be like, `Hey, I need this,' and help the crew chief out instead of just telling him, `Hey, I need to be tighter, fix it.' There's a lot of things I just want to get better at.''
Last year, Stenhouse his 26 Top-10 finishes included the final nine races.
But along with his two wins were what Stenhouse considered some missed chances. He finished second or third six other times.
``I felt like late in the year, we gave a lot away,'' he said.
After running sprint and midget cars for Stewart, Stenhouse's ARCA debut season in 2008 was his first in stock cars. A year later, Roush put Stenhouse in a Nationwide car for seven races.
Then in his first full-time Nationwide season, Stenhouse had plenty of early struggles. There were five accidents in the first 12 races before he overcame the largest deficit in series history to win the rookie title.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Stewart said Stenhouse's transition to NASCAR was similar to when the young driver was on his team.
``Right out of the box, he was fast,'' Stewart said. ``Ricky was one of those guys when he started, that he either won the race or he brought back a steering wheel because that was the only thing that was straight and not crashed. We saw very, very early ... that he had a ton of talent.
``You like guys that you have to pull the reins back a little bit,'' he said. ``And watching him last year and especially the last two years, two years ago he was wrecking stock cars like he was wrecking our sprint cars. But you started to see toward the end of the year that he started picking it up and then all of last year it was like a light switch had kicked on and he figured it out.''

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