Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Danica Patrick set to battle for rookie award

Jerry Markland

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick headline the 2013 Sprint Cup Series rookie class.

Every year from 1999 to 2007 included a seemingly fresh crop of eager drivers set to embark on their rookie seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.

Each of these rookie classes had drivers with varying degrees of talent, but every class had at least one -- and in most cases two -- drivers who would end up making an unforgettable mark on the sport.

In this nine-year span, these freshman classes included the likes of Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

All told, the crop of rookies from '99-'07 would combine for 10 Cup titles and 313 wins, including seven victories in the Daytona 500.

Additionally, these newbies would not only inject a new wave of talent into the Cup ranks, but also fill the garage with some much-needed enthusiasm.

However, because of a shortage of sponsorship dollars, opportunities that were once regularly afforded to young drivers dried up. The result has been a host of drivers with the talent to compete in Cup being relegated to one of NASCAR's junior series. A glass ceiling of sorts now hovers over these drivers knowing that, unless a big money sponsor comes along, they likely will never get a shot to run the full Cup schedule with an upper-end team.

While there are a few notable exceptions, since 2008 the freshman classes can best be described as lackluster. In this span, the drivers competing for Rookie of the Year have produced just three victories and zero appearances in the Chase.

More so, an award that once was often a precursor to greatness has evolved into a punch-line, with recipients like Kevin Conway and Stephen Leicht.

But the dry spell appears over as the rookie class of 2013 contains two of the more celebrated drivers in recent memory.

The heavy favorite for the award is Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is a bit of a throwback and has come up through the NASCAR feeder system the old-fashioned way.

Starting in the ARCA Series, Stenhouse honed his craft and showed enough talent to eventually land a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series. And it was in Nationwide where he really made a name for himself, winning back-to-back championships and cementing himself as one of the top up-and-coming drivers in NASCAR.

His talent was such that when Matt Kenseth decided to leave Roush Fenway Racing, the team wasted no time in naming Stenhouse as his heir apparent.

"I believe that Ricky, with the potential he has and excitement and talent level, it is possible that Ricky could raise all of our games," Carl Edwards said last week at Daytona about his new teammate. "I know he makes me nervous. He is super fast and super competitive and I would say that the mood at Roush right now is that we are optimistically anxious."

The other candidate for Rookie of the Year is, of course, Danica Patrick. The highest-finishing woman in the history of the Indianapolis 500 is making the leap to Cup after just one full season in Nationwide.

And what she lacks in seat time she more than makes up for in fame. She has very quickly become one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, even though her results have yet to match her celebrity status.

As to be expected due to her lack of experience, Patrick is tempering her expectations for this season.

"If it does it does, if it doesn't it doesn't," Patrick said about her chances of winning Rookie of the Year. "But I think that if I shoot for great results each time and keep bettering myself all the time that is the best goal that I can have as opposed to just shooting for Rookie-of-the-Year. It's going to be something I'm sure that will come into thought at the end of the year."

Regardless of how it plays out this season, for the first time in a while there is genuine interest in this year's battle for Rookie of the Year. No matter whether it's Stenhouse or Patrick who prevails, the likely result will be the same -- restoring the luster to an award that used to have so much meaning.

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