She underachieved more than any driver
Stenhouse should be further ahead
You could argue that Danica Patrick not only underachieved more than boyfriend/fellow Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. but also that she underachieved more than any other full-time NASCAR driver.
With Hendrick Motorsports equipment and the amount of effort that Stewart-Haas Racing put into grooming her into a stock car star, Patrick had no excuse for not consistently running in the top 20. But she qualified 30th or worse in 21 of 35 races and posted an average finish of 26th.
Conspiracy theorists weren't surprised by her Daytona 500 pole position, but even the harshest cynic could not have predicted how far Patrick's performances would regress the rest of the year. Yet that's consistent with the way she went backward in her second year in IndyCar.
Stenhouse was the top rookie in 28 races this year to Patrick's five. Heck, Timmy Hill beat them both twice, and he's not on a top-level team. No one will mistake this year's rookie of the year for those who won the award from 1993 to 2009, a who's-who of NASCAR's top current stars.
Patrick is certainly the most accomplished female racer to date, but she's not getting the equal treatment she says she wants. No male driver with the same record would land an eight-figure sponsorship and a seat on one of NASCAR's top teams.
There's also the sideshow factor. How can proven race- and championship-winning drivers not feel slighted when the 27th-place runner receives more attention and adulation than they do? Perhaps it's not a coincidence that Stewart-Haas as a whole had a lousy year.
Of course, if page impressions, publicity and hype measure the success of a driver, Patrick is at the top of her profession. In NASCAR, only Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes close. But for all the flak Junior takes for his recent lack of winning ways, he has collected 19 Sprint Cup victories and ranked fifth in this year's Chase standings -- hardly a failure by any definition.
Patrick recently spoke of her desire to host "Saturday Night Live," and despite her lack of race-winning pedigree, she has a high-enough public profile that she just might land that gig. Famous mostly for being famous, she has a bright career ahead of her in the entertainment industry. Perhaps it's time for her to think about giving up on the whole race car driver dream to open a prime Sprint Cup ride for a more accomplished and deserving driver.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. entered his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series with 107 races, eight wins and consecutive championships in the top-tier developmental Nationwide Series. He competes for Roush Fenway Racing, one of the most resourceful teams in the sport. It placed two of its three drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season.
His rookie season as a Sprint Cup driver has been serviceable, but compared to Danica Patrick's, taking into account the experience and expectation for each, it is clear which driver has underachieved more. It's not Patrick.
That Stenhouse was the only member of the RFR lineup to fail to qualify for NASCAR's playoff format was not surprising. Only one rookie has done so in the decade the system has been used to determine the series' champion.
But it is surprising that Stenhouse was unable to separate himself further from a former open wheel driver with just 60 starts in Nationwide who is just three years into what has been proven by several other open-wheel drivers to be one of the more difficult conversions in motorsports.
Stenhouse finished the season 19th in points, just eight spots in front of Patrick. With a third-place finish at Talladega and a pole at Atlanta, he's had some respectable results, but not what should be expected from a driver who was so dominant in the Nationwide Series.
In 2012, Stenhouse produced 19 top-5s and 26 top-10s and, most impressive, six wins in fields stocked with Cup drivers each week. No Nationwide regular has more than Regan Smith's two this season.
Certainly, differences in race cars between the two series required an adjustment. But it's an adjustment Stenhouse should have made more quickly, especially considering the resources at his disposal, not only in terms of equipment but in human capital with teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
For much of the season, there appeared to be a deficit between Roush and SHR in cars. While Stewart-Haas Racing's cars appeared to be behind -- leading to struggles for Patrick, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman -- Roush's cars have been comparatively better.
Stenhouse is being judged here stringently, for sure. But just like their battle for the rookie of the year award, Stenhouse and Patrick are being judged in a head-to-head comparison. And in this comparison, he should have been further ahead.