The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had one of it’s most high-profiled Rookie of the Year classes in 2013 when 2-time Nationwide Series Champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr and IndyCar turned NASCAR driver Danica Patrick competed for the coveted honors.
The duo kicked off the 2013 season by making a major announcement just before Daytona’s Media Day; they were dating. Articles and news stories and endless questions filtered their way and also toward many drivers within the series because everyone was wondering if this would work. Could two drivers, from different teams, be romantically involved and still be competitive on the track? What would happen if one wrecked the other? Those questions and more were answered throughout 2013 and heading into their sophomore season in the Sprint Cup Series, Stenhouse and Patrick are more prepared than ever to tackle NASCAR’s highest series.
Stenhouse started off the season slowly, hanging around mid-pack but never lingering too far back. With a string of five top-20 finishes to kick off the season, the No.17 Roush Fenway Racing team was learning to work with their new young driver and by mid-season, they were consistently finishing in the top-20. Although Stenhouse went winless for the first time in his career, his Rookie season is nothing he should hang his head about. With one pole, three top-10s and one top-5 finish, he ended his season 19th in the standings.
His sophomore season should see significant improvement from last season and being paired with former Nationwide Series Crew Chief Mike Kelley, Stenhouse has a familiar face and voice on top of the pit box. Stenhouse excels at the fast mile-and-a-half tracks like Kansas and Chicago and has a third place finish at Talladega in the fall. With a fast speedway car, he could easily be a contender for the season opener at Daytona. Keep an eye on Ricky Stenhouse Jr., with this new Chase format, he could be one of the 2014 Championship contenders.
Danica Patrick kicked off her Rookie campaign with an impressive run in the 2013 Daytona 500. With a fast car during Preseason Thunder and throughout Speedweeks, it was no surprise to see her capture the Pole for the Great American Race. Becoming the first woman to start first in the Cup Series, Patrick went on to make history again when she finished eighth in the race, the highest for a female. After her impressive run in the Daytona 500, Patrick’s season was less than spectacular. Coming from an open wheel background, Patrick seemed to struggle driving a loose racecar. An impresive run at Martinsville brought all eyes to Patrick again when her 12th place finish, coming from multiple laps down, earned her praise from NASCAR’s best drivers. Towards the end of 2013, Patrick and her team improved with the set-up of her car and as she returned to tracks for a second and third time, her speeds improved.
2014 will be yet another learning year for Patrick but expectations should be higher. Now familiar with the Gen6 car and the Sprint Cup Series, Patrick knows what to expect and how she wants her car set up. With her No.10 team still in tact from 2013, Patrick and Crew Chief Tony Gibson have the familiarity that will help her sophomore adventure. With two new teammates in Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick plus having veteran driver Mark Martin in the shop, Patrick has a lot of talented drivers to ask questions and learn from. Look for consistency for the No.10 GoDaddy team in 2014 and this new qualifying format should play well into her skill set. I expect a top-20 finish in the standings for Patrick at the end of 2014.
Stenhouse and Patrick had respectable Rookie seasons and a few run-ins with each other didn’t seem to derail their off-track relationship. Heading into Daytona 2014, these two drivers will be ready to take on their sophomore season with much to build on for the future. Don’t be surprised if you see one or both of these drivers in Victory Lane in 2014.