Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday October 24, 2013
As 2013 approaches its final laps, the Chase teams are putting everything they have into winning the title, while other teams turn their attention ahead to 2014. Veteran drivers and teams are already analyzing 2013 for holes to plug for next year, while some look for changes in driver, crew, or manufacturer to help solve some of their woes. Meetings with prospective sponsors are ramping up.
For the three rookies in the Cup Series, it’s not all that different. No first-year driver made the Chase, and in the long run, that’s not a bad thing, because it allows the teams to look ahead to next year with no pressure.
For the three very different rookies who ran in Sprint Cup this year, how important is their rookie year in projecting what they might be in the future? Recent years would indicate that it’s very important. Looking at recent Cup champions, the two most successful, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, had what were probably the most successful rookie seasons in the sport’s modern era, each winning three races. Johnson was also the only rookie in the sport’s history to hold the series points lead as a first-year driver. On the other hand, Jeff Gordon’s rookie year was nothing to write home about and Gordon is one of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport, so the good news is that nobody can be written off just yet.
Another piece of information that two of this year’s new drivers can take to heart is that winning the Rookie of the Year award doesn’t automatically pave the road to a championship, especially in recent years. Gordon and Stewart, along with Matt Kenseth are former ROTY winners who have gone on to win series titles. Johnson, however, did not win the award, and neither did Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch, or Brad Keselowski, all of whom are series champions while the drivers who beat them for the award, with the exception of Jeff Gordon who was a rookie along with Labonte in 1994, have not won a title.
But while all of that is interesting information, it’s in the past. It’s time to take a closer look at this year’s rookie class and what they have accomplished so far…and perhaps to take a peek at their futures.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (32 races, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 3 top 10’s, average finish 18.7)
The Good: Stenhouse, racing the No. 17 for Roush Fenway Racing, came to the Cup ranks with a pair of Nationwide Series titles, but hasn’t quite performed up to the expectations of some people. But there are two reasons that it’s too early to make an assessment of Stenhouse. One, his Nationwide Series career got off to a much rockier start then his Cup career to date. As in he was a threat to crash almost every week, and Roush Fenway even considered replacing him at one point in that season. Two, Roush Fenway’s Cup program has had a weak link in each of the last few seasons, and this year it appears to be the No. 17. The organization struggled to keep all three teams in top form before Stenhouse stepped up…so Stenhouse can’t shoulder all the blame for his mediocre season alone.
Another stat to build from is the zero-DNF number that means Stenhouse has been running at the finish of every race. Only teammate Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray can also say that. And for a rookie, completing laps is a huge key to building the information that team needs to return to every track more competitive than the year before.
The Not-So-good: That 18.7 average finish. Stenhouse is midpack in average finish this year, and while he is ahead of Jeff Burton and even Mark Martin, those are drivers in the twilight of their careers. Also, Stenhouse is behind Aric Almirola and Regan Smith in that category despite having superior equipment. It’s not a terrible average, it’s just not the type of average that makes onlookers think that
first win or Chase berth is just around the corner. In other words, Stenhouse is racing cleanly and finishing his races, but he’s only finishing midpack. At this point in his career, that’s preferable to taking too many risks and crashing each week (the lesson Stenhouse learned in the Nationwide Series), but it’s not what sponsors (in this case, most of whom signed on when Matt Kenseth was in the driver’s seat) are looking for.
The Future: Stenhouse looks to be the best of this year’s class, not only in 2013, but long term. He’s shown improvement in recent weeks, though he does need to find consistency at tracks now that he’s raced them at least once. There is some pressure to perform for Stenhouse; Roush Fenway teammate Biffle is getting older, and while Carl Edwards has performed well in 2013, all three teams need to step it up a bit. Also, Roush Fenway has a handful of talented youngsters in their stable of Nationwide Series drivers, and they will be looking to fill Cup seats in the future.
Danica Patrick (32 races, 1 pole, 0 wins, 1 top 5, 1 top 10, average finish 26.4)
The Good: Patrick has had a handful of promising moments, including her pole and eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, a 12th-place run at Martinsville this spring, and a smattering of other solid races. She seems to genuinely want to learn to drive these cars and do things right (and not all drivers truly want to learn new tricks). Also, Patrick’s rookie year in IndyCar wasn’t particularly special. She didn’t take home a podium finish in that series until her third season, but she won in her fourth year. Success hasn’t come overnight for Patrick, but it has come.
Patrick has the strongest sponsor support in this group thanks to GoDaddy. Her sponsor came with her, not the previous driver of the car (as they did for Stenhouse). They’ve stuck around and renewed their commitment for the future. That’s a huge weight off a driver’s shoulders, and having that deal in the bank means the team can focus on what they need to improve.
The Not-So-Good: Patrick is in some of the best equipment in the Sprint Cup garage. Teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman have won races in the same cars as she is getting, and Stewart is just two years removed from winning a title in equal stuff. Yet Patrick is being routinely outraced by drivers in inferior equipment. David Gilliland, David Ragan, and Casey Mears are all ahead of Patrick in points despite her far superior equipment.
Patrick seems to struggle to communicate effectively with crew chief Tony Gibson. She can tell him what the problem is, but can’t always provide the information needed to fix it. That’s going to hurt her going forward.
Also, it seems at times like Patrick is unwilling to take the car right to the edge, and winning in this series requires that cars run on that edge all day long, often with a wheel or two over it. Patrick seems to be able to take the car there but then it appears as though she backs off a fraction rather than keeping it there. Whether it’s fear, lack of confidence in her ability, or something else holding her back, Patrick needs to overcome it to succeed at this level.
The Future: As noted above, Patrick didn’t light IndyCar on fire in her first year, but she did improve. But, and it’s a big but, she never appeared hesitant in those cars, and she was much more competitive than she has been in Sprint Cup. It’s going to take a lot of improvement for her to be a truly relevant driver in this series, and she hasn’t shown that; Patrick’s performance has actually declined in the second half of the season, when it should be getting better. All four of her top-15 finishes came in the first half of the season, with the most recent at Daytona in July. She hasn’t finished better than 20th since.
While Patrick has a huge wave of corporate support and media attention to keep her in the sport, her performance is unlikely to ever match the hype. That’s unfortunate for her in that it adds pressure to perform at what may be an unrealistic level for her, and every mistake she makes is scrutinized and analyzed. But it also means that she’ll probably have backing for as long as she wants to race, and that’s not something every driver can say.
Timmy Hill (17 races, 0 wins, 0 top 5, 0 top 10, average finish 33.6)
The Good: If Patrick has no excuse for poor performance in her equipment, Hill does. He’s driving for badly underfunded FAS Lane Racing, and his results are in line with what he’s driving. Veteran drivers Terry Labonte and Ken Schrader have also been in the seat of the No. 32 this year, and haven’t had stellar results, so Hill is in good company there. He’s also just 20 years old and is the least experienced of the three in upper level racing. He’s shown some flashes of talent this year, but most fans never saw them because he receives little attention from media.
The Not-So-Good: Hill hasn’t shown a lot of improvement this year, and running for this team, he’s not going to. That’s not entirely his fault, though Hill in all fairness should probably be running in the Nationwide Series. He’s pretty much running at the limits of his equipment. The unfortunate side to this is that drivers who run as backmarkers rarely get attention form bigger teams, no matter what the reason for their performance. So while Hill needs time in a quality Nationwide or Truck Series ride more than anything else right now, getting that is going to be an uphill battle because of his lack of performance, which is unfortunate. It’s hard to say what kind of talent Hill truly has at this point.
The Future: Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as bright as the others. Hill isn’t getting enough notice for a bigger team to take a chance on him as a development driver, which means it’s very likely that he’ll bounce around the smallest of the small teams in Cup and/or Nationwide, but never land the ride that might let him develop into a top driver.
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