Ricky Stenhouse, you're an upgrade over Stephen Leicht.
Stenhouse, replacing Matt Kenseth in Roush Fenway Racing's No. 17 car, is the presumptive favorite for the 2013 Rookie of the Year honors and could easily contend for a win or two this season. Leicht, last year's rookie of the year, ran 15 races for Circle Sport Racing and start-and-parked 10 of them.
If we're going on driving ability, Leicht's a worthy nominee; in his only full season in the Nationwide Series in 2007, he won a race and finished seventh in the points standings. And it's not Leicht's fault that the rookie class was essentially nonexistent. But a driver who start and parks a majority of his races should be NASCAR's top series' rookie of the year.
Enter Stenhouse, who is making the move to Cup after two consecutive Nationwide titles and eight wins over those two seasons. His Nationwide career got off to a rocky start as he crashed five times in the first 12 races of 2010 and didn't qualify for the 13th, but team owner Jack Roush stuck with him through the crashes and an initial lack of sponsorship and Stenhouse now finds himself inheriting the seat of a Sprint Cup Series champion.
“Having teammates (like Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) is going to be a lot of fun this year," Stenhouse said Thursday during Roush Fenway's media tour stop. "I think our expectations are to go out and compete for wins and have a strong Roush Fenway team. I hope I can do my part to contribute.”
His main competition for Rookie of the Year honors will be Danica Patrick, with whom Stenhouse has become good friends over their past two seasons together in the Nationwide Series. At the risk of burying the lead for some of you, their friendship has even reached tabloidal levels as two outlets speculated their friendship after the news of Patrick's divorce from husband Paul Hospenthal. Stenhouse was asked about that on Thursday and offered this response:
"We've got a great relationship. Obviously, it started when she came into the sport. We were both going to rookie meetings. It's been cool to work with her in the Nationwide Series. I've felt like she could come to me with advice with the experience I've had.
"But, you know, I don't like to talk too much about my personal life. I think this week is about Roush Fenway, the Gen 6 (car), our sponsors and our season that we're looking ahead to. It's going to be fun racing her in rookie of the year. I think it's going to be very exciting. I've never raced a friend for a championship, for rookie of the year."
And no, their friendship will not impact how they race each other as they move up a level.
"Heck no, we're going for rookie of the year," Stenhouse said. "People always say, 'I'd wreck my mom to win,' and that's a racer's mentality. I want to win rookie of the year just as badly as she does."
UPDATE: OK, they're dating.
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