Danica Patrick might receive the most attention of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series rookie class members, but as the season winds down, it appears she will not be its star pupil.
That distinction looks like it will go to Patrick’s boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Patrick’s large fan following helped launch a glitzy start to her first full season in NASCAR’s biggest series, but the top on-track performances have for the most part belonged to Stenhouse.
Stenhouse, who drives for Roush Fenway Racing, earned a career-best third-place finish Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and picked up rookie-of-the-race honors for the 26th time this season.
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With four races remaining, he is pulling away in the rookie points race, leading Patrick 214-192. Timmy Hill is third with 159 points.
What’s even more impressive about Stenhouse is he continues to perform better and more consistently as the season goes along, earning his threetop-10 finishes during the past seven weeks.
Patrick on the other hand, began the year with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500, but that remains her only top-10.
“Everybody is working real hard. I think our cars are getting better, and everybody at the shop is all hands-on, just trying to make our season the best it can be here at the end,” said Stenhouse, who won Nationwide series in 2011 and 2012.
“We struggled throughout the first half of the season, definitely more than I thought we should or definitely more than we wanted to. We’ve learned a lot.
“It’s been fun the last month or so, and we just need to keep it going.”
With the series moving to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway this weekend, it might not be the best of places for Stenhouse to continue the momentum.
But he believes he and his No.17 Ford team have come a long way since the April race at the track, when he finished 25th and two laps down.
“I’ve only been there once and we were terrible. We went and tested three days there a couple weeks ago, and the crew chiefs and guys have been working real hard on our race cars to get them better on the short tracks,” Stenhouse said.
“We’ve been thinking about this race a long time. We've been working towards Martinsville for a while now.”
A solid performance Sunday would cement his second-half resurgence.
Stenhouse’s first top-10 of the season came Sept. 7 at Richmond, Va., where he had finished 16th in the spring. His third at Talladega last weekend was 10 spots better than he did in that track’s spring race.
Stenhouse also finished eighth at Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile track similar to many on the schedule where he had run well.
“I think it has been a combination of sitting down with (crew chief) Scott Graves and getting better ideas of what we need to do at the end of races,” Stenhouse said of his late-season improvement.
“We have been getting better track position and hanging on to it at the end. We still have a long way to go, but we are getting better. I think it is just a whole lot of hard work by everyone on the team.”