Thermosonics, also known as ultrasonic stimulated thermography, is a rapid non-destructive evaluation technique that uses an infrared camera to visualise material defects by detecting the frictional heating at crack surfaces when a part under inspection is vibrated. These vibrations are usually produced by an ultrasonic horn being pressed against the surface of the test sample, which result in uncontrolled generations of frequency components and excitation amplitude. This makes thermosonics highly non-reproducible and unreliable. This paper presents a novel thermographic method, here named as nonlinear ultrasound stimulated thermography, for the detection and imaging of real material defects such as impact damage on a complex composite stiffener panel. This technique combines nonlinear ultrasonic techniques with thermography. A nonlinear ultrasonic approach was used as signature for a reliable frequency-selective excitation of material defects, while an infrared camera was employed to reveal the damage location and severity. A nonlinear narrow sweep excitation method was employed to efficiently excite the local resonance frequencies of the damaged region in order to give rise to the highest nonlinear harmonic response in the material leading to a high heat generation at the crack surface. The experimental tests were carried out with a laser vibrometer in order to better understand the interaction of elastic waves with nonlinear scattering. An ad-hoc nonlinear thermal-structural finite element and crack model was developed to study the heat generation caused by the movement of the crack surfaces when elastic waves with a particular frequency impinges on the crack interphase with good agreement with the experimental results. The proposed new method allows to detect single and multiple barely visible impact damage in a quick, reliable and reproducible manner and overcomes the main limitations of classical thermosonics.