Ricky Stenhouse Jr. insisted this week that contrary to what many might expect, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition between he and girlfriend Danica Patrick is a low-profile reality in their otherwise high-wattage careers.
Despite the extra spotlight thrust upon the pair because they are dating, Stenhouse said this week the competition between the two for rookie honors is actually much less intense than people might imagine -- even considering their unique and close relationship.
No trash-talking here. Not even friendly side-wagers.
"We don't really talk about it too much,'' Stenhouse conceded this week. "We talk about how our races went, how our cars handled, things like that.
"But I don't even know how many points I have in the Rookie of the Year standings. I'm not even sure how much we're leading it by.''
The answer is that Stenhouse holds a 10-point edge over Patrick in the rookie standings. And while those two aren't counting, the numbers are 20-3 in Stenhouse's favor when it comes to taking race top rookie honors. Patrick bettered him in the Daytona 500, at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
"We just each go out and do our job each and every week, try to capitalize on the good cars that we have, try to get good finishes out of a not?so?good weekend like we did at Watkins Glen,'' Stenhouse explained. "We don't keep up with it, don't talk about the Rookie of the Year. We talk about how the race tracks have changed throughout the weekend, things like that.
"Away from the race track, we don't really talk much about racing, period."
Fresh off back-to-back NASCAR Nationwide Series championships, Stenhouse moved up to Jack Roush's No. 17 Ford with high expectations and big motivations in 2013.
Beyond the rookie contest, Stenhouse is ranked 21st in the standings and still looking for his first top-10. His best finish is 11th at Kansas Speedway in April.
He's led laps in three races including a season best 26 laps at Kansas. And while Stenhouse doesn't have a top-10 yet, he has only seven finishes worse than 20th through 23 races.
For Stenhouse, winning rookie honors would be a nice feather in the cap, but the experience he's gaining to position himself for the future is what he uses as a gauge of progress.
"I think we've been really consistent this season,'' Stenhouse said. "I haven't put myself in many positions that are going to get us wrecked. We finished every single race this year. We blew a tire at Texas and that took us out of contention of running well. We got crashed at Pocono. We blew a tire this weekend.
"I think we've been really consistent throughout the year, not taking too many chances at pressing the issue and tearing our car up. That was something that took me a while to learn. It took me forever in the Nationwide car to figure that out.
"In 2011, 2012, running for those championships, every point matters. Ten races into this season, we were close to top 10 in points. We had a Wild Card spot for a little while. That was just running consistent. We weren't very fast, we weren't contending for wins or running top 10, but we were consistent and we were finishing races.
"I think we've gained a ton of experience this year just by finishing these races and being out on the race track, something that I feel like I jeopardized in 2010 racing for the Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series. I crashed a lot. I didn't get the experience I needed."
This week's half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway bullring is a place that has suited Stenhouse historically. He finished 16th this spring in his first Cup race there but had better success in the Nationwide Series, particularly during championship runs. He won a Coors Light Pole in 2011 and finished runner-up in the 2012 fall race.
"I'm looking at the experience I'm gaining right now,'' Stenhouse said. "Hopefully it will pay off for next year. Just the consistency that it takes to win a championship is what I brought over to the Cup Series to put us where we are now.
". ?The biggest thing, I think I didn't realize this (in Nationwide), you have to be so perfect in the Sprint Cup Series. Every driver out there can go win a race if they have the right car, have a fast pit crew and things like that.
"The tolerance in getting that setup just right, that perfect setup, is very, very small. It seems like all those teams are so close together that just a little bit off can put you 25th or 20th.
"I think I could have a good car in Nationwide and run top five or you can have a great car and win. You can have a great car in the Sprint Cup Series and run 15th with it. It's super competitive. These guys are just really good."
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