Compared to Rookies Past Neither Half of 'Stenica' is Getting it Done
Coming into the year, much was made of NASCAR's rookie class of 2013. For the first time in several years, the series had multiple rookie drivers running the full schedule with big name teams. There would be no repeat of Stephen Leicht's 2012, where he won the Rookie of the Year title while running only 15 of the 36 scheduled races. Ricky Stenhouse, running for Roush Fenway Racing, was coming off back to back Nationwide series championships. Danica Patrick, running for Stewart Haas Racing, was ready to make her Sprint Cup debut amid high expectations and higher fan interest. Patrick qualifying in the pole position for the Daytona 500 (and running up front most of the race) left fans with the impression that this was going to be a rookie class to be reckoned with. And that's without mentioning the fact that the two are romantically involved.
The expectations and hopes of February have long since faded. Since the season-opening Daytona 500, the two have combined to run 46 NASCAR Sprint Cup races yet neither driver has scored a top ten finish. They have run over 12,000 laps and led only 29 (all by Stenhouse). Both sit well outside the top 20 in points with Stenhouse at 23rd and Patrick in 27th.
Moreover, while bad luck and a steep learning curve can account for some of their poor finishes, the sad fact is that neither driver has luck primarily to blame for their struggles. Stenhouse has finished all 24 races this year and finished on the lead lap 16 times. Patrick has four crashes but has still finished 20 of 24 races; her average finish of 25.9 should be much higher given the carnage we've seen on several tracks as the teams learn the ins and outs of the Gen 6 car. Stenhouse, at an average finish of 19.9, is somewhat better but it's also a virtual tie to his average start of 20.1. He finishes exactly where he starts, not a sign of progress by any stretch of the imagination.
Autographed Danica Patrick merchandise
Patrick wrecked defending champion Keselowski at Charlotte
Supporters of either driver tend to believe that it's a matter of experience (or lack thereof) causing these results and that in time the numbers will improve. Patrick averages a gain of nearly five positions per race, showing that she is moving forward over the course of an average event. Stenhouse had an absolutely dreadful start to his Nationwide career with five crashes over the first 12 events of 2010. But when the light clicked on for him, it was Halogen-bright and he won eight races in two years on his way to those Nationwide championships.
It's also worth noting that neither team has set the NASCAR world on fire in 2013. SHR has two wins (one apiece for Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman) but neither is inside the top ten in points. Stewart was in the wild card race prior to his injury and Newman remains there but other teams have been better on a weekly basis. In addition to a pair of wins, RFR also has two of its drivers inside the top ten in points. But the team has relied on consistency not contention for wins to achieve that success and team owner Jack Roush freely admits his organization spent much of the year down on speed.
Yet even considering the equipment and the experience levels the performance of Patrick and Stenhouse does not measure up to rookies of years past in similar situations. Since the 2003 season there have been 27 drivers who ran (or attempted to run) 75% of the NASCAR schedule in their first season. While those drivers do not have a large number of wins (Carl Edwards rookie season accounts for more than half of the victories), the average rookie driver has done better than Stenica has this season. On a per driver basis they average 2.52 top five finishes, 5 top ten finishes and 100 laps led. Only ten of the 27 failed to score a top ten finish and eight finished with fewer laps led than Patrick has now.
It's worth taking a closer look at the ten that failed to score a top ten finish because those are the drivers most statistically similar to what 2013's rookies have put up. Of the ten, only Paul Menard is currently running a full-time Sprint Cup schedule in a competitive ride; the other nine are in lesser rides (Casey Mears, David Reutimann), parking their cars (David Stremme, Josh Wise), running Nationwide (Sam Hornish Jr., Regan Smith), or awaiting the next opportunity (everyone else). The record of those drivers is not comforting for either Stenhouse or Patrick. The lone top ten finish so far is Patrick's eight place finish at Daytona.
Roush Fenway Racing desperately wants Stenhouse to succeed as a Sprint Cup driver. Team co-owner Jack Roush put Stenhouse in the full-time Nationwide ride two years ago over Trevor Bayne. As a former Daytona 500 winner and clean-cut kid whose religious values are shared by much of the NASCAR fanbase, Bayne was the popular choice for the ride. Stenhouse rewarded Roush's patience and the team owner will give Ricky the chance to do so again. Unless the bottom falls out of his season completely, Stenhouse will be back in the #17 next season.
Meanwhile, Patrick is the golden goose in terms of popularity and sponsorship. If she finds even a modicum of success in NASCAR she can attract a whole new group of fans and sponsors into the sport. That's why she's had top flight equipment since day one. That's why she's been given opportunities that anger many traditional NASCAR fans who rightly say her past performance does not merit the ride she now has; the fact that Patrick will remain at SHR while Ryan Newman is leaving speaks volumes to that point. Her car is fully sponsored for at least another year and that alone will guarantee any driver a ride no matter how poor the performance.
But neither Patrick nor Stenhouse has a blank check. Danica's popularity exists in large part because she is an attractive woman in a traditionally male-dominated sport. Stenhouse is a cowboy-hat wearing country music aficionado that many NASCAR fans can identify with on first sight. Those factors brought Stenica to the dance but it will not keep them there forever. Fans ultimately will demand that they perform on the track and sponsors will do likewise. If they do not begin to run up front and contend for wins they will both eventually find themselves on the outside looking in. There are simply too many talented drivers on the Nationwide and Camping World truck levels pushing for a spot at the table.
Danica Patrick's case is particularly complicated. From the very beginning of her NASCAR career there has been an undercurrent of unhappiness from many fans. Few fans are on the fence when it comes to the neon green #10. She has a strong measure of popularity from people who want her to do well and will support her when she does. But she also has a strong backlash working against her; from the Maxim spread to the GoDaddy commercials, Patrick sold sex appeal for years to help launch her racing career. Now she has a ride at a premier NASCAR team driving some of the best equipment in the sport despite never winning a stock car race. Incidents like the ones Saturday night (where Patrick drove in the primary racing line and held up the leaders despite being several laps down) only make more traditional NASCAR fans believe that Patrick simply doesn't belong.
Although neither driver will make NASCAR's playoffs, the final races of 2013 are critically important to both rookies. As noted above, finishing without a win in your first year is not terminal to a driver's career. Going without a top ten finish and failing to lead laps very well might be. Both need to show to the fans, their teams, and most importantly themselves that they do belong at the Sprint Cup level. A strong finish to this season can help either rookie launch their 2014 season much the way Stenhouse did at the Nationwide level to end 2010. Both he and Patrick have the equipment and the support systems in place to be competitive. At some point, it will be up to them to make it happen. NASCAR's history is littered with drivers who came in with a blaze of popularity and flamed out in short order. Unless the two halves of Stenica pick up the pace they may well become the next to do so.