It hasn't exactly been a golden age for rookies in the Cup Series the past three seasons. Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway are the last three drivers to take home Rookie of the Year honors, and Leicht did so last year despite a 35.6 average finish and 10 DNFs in 15 starts. Keep in mind that this is the same award that guys like Jimmie Johnson, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin didn't win. Needless to say, the last few rookie classes have been among the worst in series history, and fantasy owners haven't really had any new options to choose from since Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski started Cup racing in 2009.
Fortunately, a much-needed injection of new talent is on the way in 2013 with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick set to join the Cup Series full time. Both drivers enter the series with plenty of hype, and more importantly, both have quality rides with excellent organizations. Stenhouse is replacing Matt Kenseth at Roush Fenway Racing, while Patrick will be driving a third car for Stewart-Haas Racing. The fact that the two recently announced that they are dating only adds to the storyline.
From a fantasy perspective, both drivers deserve attention heading into the season. At the very least, Stenhouse and Patrick are going to have a lot more value than the part-time, start-and-park drivers that have been taking home ROY honors lately. That being said, the immediate fantasy potential of each driver isn't exactly equal. In order to help owners a better of idea of which rookie has an overall edge and how each can help fantasy teams in 2013, here is a preview of what to expect from Stenhouse and Patrick in the upcoming year.
Danica Patrick | Stewart-Haas Racing
If media attention were the sole judge of a driver's fantasy value, Patrick would be a better option than Jimmie Johnson. She is going to be under a microscope all year, and Patrick is going to be talked about at length whether she is running in the top 10 or outside the top 25. The problem for fantasy owners is that there is a good chance she will be spending a lot of her time outside of the top 25 in her rookie season, limiting her value in a lot of formats.
After all, Patrick has yet to impress at any level of stock car racing. She finished 2012 with an 18.8 average finish in the Nationwide Series, which was actually worse than the 17.4 average she posted in 13 Nationwide starts in 2011. In the Cup Series, she posted a dismal 28.3 average finish in 10 starts. Not to mention that there haven't been a lot of success stories among drivers trying to move from the IRL to NASCAR. Drivers like Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti have tried and failed to make the same leap Patrick is attempting, and they had won championships at the open-wheel level.
On the plus side, Patrick did improve throughout 2012. She posted a 14.2 average finish over the final 10 races of the Nationwide season, closing the year with eight straight finishes of 16th or better. She also saved her best for last at the Cup level. Patrick notched a career-best 24th-place finish at Texas in her second-to-last start and then topped that in her final appearance by finishing 17th at Phoenix. Granted, they were baby steps, but she became better with seat time and should only to continue to improve. However, how long it takes for that improvement to take place and how good she can ultimately become are both subject to debate.
In the meantime, owners need to have lowered expectations for Patrick in 2013. Her rookie year is going to be about staying out of trouble and learning as much as possible, and a top-20 finish is probably her ceiling on a good day. That being said, she needs to be added in the late rounds of any draft simply because she will be in the field every week and will outperform the bundle of part-time and full-time drivers that are racing for underfunded teams. In other formats, she really doesn't have much value until she proves she can crack the top 20 on a consistent basis.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. | Roush Fenway Racing
If you are looking for the Rookie of the Year favorite in 2013, look no further than Stenhouse. He already has plenty of experience racing against and beating NASCAR's big names, and he lands with a No. 17 team that has won a championship and numerous races at the Cup level. Not to mention the fact that he enters his first full-time Cup season on the heels of back-to-back Nationwide Series titles. Plain and simple, the pieces are in place for Stenhouse to have immediate success and make an immediate impact on fantasy rosters.
His numbers in the Nationwide Series the past two seasons have been quite impressive. After posting two wins, 16 top-five finishes and an 8.8 average finish in 2011, he improved across the board last year. Stenhouse finished 2012 with six wins, 19 top-five finishes and a 7.3 average finish. More importantly, he has posted encouraging numbers in a handful of Cup starts, logging three top-20 finishes. In fact, he qualified ninth and finished 11th in the Coca-Cola 600 the very first time he stepped behind the wheel of a Cup car.
The one knock that can be made against Stenhouse is his temper. If you have ever listened to the in-car chatter between he and his crew chief and spotter, you already know that the guy can get pretty intense. If you happened to listen to his in-car audio during last year's Nationwide finale as he continued to put himself in dangerous situations despite needing just a solid finish to win the title, you also know that he isn't afraid to ignore team orders. His aggressive style is part of what makes Stenhouse such a great driver, but don't be surprised if he loses his cool on occasion and makes a bad day worse for himself and his fantasy owners.
Temper aside, Stenhouse has the talent and equipment to be a top-20 fantasy driver in 2013. He should definitely be one of the first 20 drivers off the board in any draft, and given the question marks that come with guys like Joey Logano and Paul Menard, you could justify gambling on him as high as the 15th pick. Stenhouse's history of success at the intermediate tracks makes him an ideal sleeper candidate in weekly leagues, as well. Nothing is a sure thing in fantasy, but Stenhouse should only get better as the year goes on, and at worst, he should be a serviceable option capable of steady top-20 finishes.