If there's one sure thing about the upcoming season in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, it's this aspect: change.
There's new race cars on the track, with the Generation-6 vehicles that'll be utilized with manufacturer specific Chevrolet SS's, Ford Fusions, and Toyota Camrys which are said to be "bad fast" from test sessions at Daytona and Charlotte.
Additionally, there's new driver and team combinations that'll be vying for the championship, as previewed on here. Some may hit it off and find instant success while others may need a year or two to truly build on long term gains.
Probably one of the most compelling stories that'll be chronicled in 2013 is the legit battle for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.
For the first time since 2009, two drivers will challenge each other for the top freshman honors in the Cup series. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., two-time Nationwide Series Champion, and Danica Patrick, who placed 10th in last year's Nationwide points race, will duke it out in what will be a competitive and fiercely contested competition race from Daytona to Homestead-Miami.
Both drivers will be in competitive and well-funded efforts, hailing respectively from the Roush-Fenway Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing camps. It's ironically going to pit the two teams that faced off for the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, which went down to the wire (although there's no promises that this particular head-to-head race will be as dramatic....or will it?).
Stenhouse and Patrick have legions of fans and both carry a somewhat polarizing reputation in their freshman efforts of Cup racing as aggressive and outspoken drivers. The former had a skirmish with a fellow competitor in the ARCA Re/Max Series back in 2008, wrecking Scott Speed during the season finale at Toledo in a critical and close title race. Having come a long way since that controversial moment, despite his success, he does carry the baggage of racing over the edge.
He's got the makings to be a very successful and enduring stock car figure in NASCAR, with those talents displayed during those title years in the 2011 and '12 Nationwide Series seasons. Besting Elliott Sadler twice for that division's trophy, he enters the Cup series with the No. 17 Ford team, which has been one of the most successful efforts in recent times.
Replacing Matt Kenseth, who's now driving Joe Gibbs' No. 20 Toyota, Stenhouse is replacing some very big shoes and will have to live up to big expectations with his Roush-Fenway ride.
Patrick's career is well documented by about any press around the world, with her moments in IndyCar taking the sports world by force starting with the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Becoming the first woman to lead a lap in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," she went on to win a race at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008 before placing third in the 2009 Indy 500 and impressing critics with her strong top-10 stock car debut in the 2010 ARCA season opener.
Like Stenhouse, the pride of Roscoe, IL can be known for her use of the chrome horn, especially seen last fall at Kansas Speedway when she raced aggressively against Landon Cassill.
Some feel that she hasn't earned her dues in racing, dismissing her as a novelty act and regarding her in somewhat disparaging ways. Those same individuals root against her and perhaps root on another female, which may be a bit of an oxymoron considering that Patrick's presence in the sport can only help diversify and strengthen NASCAR.
Sure, she may not be the next Sprint Cup champion, but the fact she's racing from the same shop that houses Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman's cars indicates she has what it takes to do impressive things in stock car racing. Her finishes improved in her latter races, finishing near the top-20 and on some occasions, racing her way back to the lead lap after starting slowly in events.
These two talents will certainly make this year's rookie race interesting and exciting, as they'll take to some tracks and excel immediately as their cars are unloaded from their trucks (say at Daytona or Las Vegas). At some of the more technical tracks, those weekends may seem long and a bit of a gruesome chore.
Like any driver who's gone through their first year in NASCAR, it'll be a time in which every experience will be valuable and it won't exactly pertain to what shocks or air pressure works at the intermediates.
Ask drivers like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, whose rookie efforts was filled with great days and times that just couldn't end any sooner. Gordon had amazing days in 1993, finishing fifth in his first Daytona 500 and getting podium finish efforts at the spring Atlanta race, the Coke 600 at Charlotte, and at both Michigan races.
Along with those happy days were some crinkled sheet metal or broken engines, as he tallied 14 DNF's en route to a 14th-place points finish.
Stewart, like Patrick, departed the open wheel ranks to become a fully dedicated stock car driver in a transition period starting in mid-1996 to '99. Despite his lack of experience with closed-wheeled cars, he was impressive in his rookie Cup season, winning three races and finishing fourth in the points standings.
Of course, Stewart didn't exactly go through the '99 season incident-free, as he tangled with his once USAC rival Kenny Irwin, Jr. in the fall Martinsville race that displayed his on-track anger to the tune of a helmet toss and a furious driver by day's end. That same competitiveness is still around, with just more knowledge as to when he can choose his battles.
Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. will have a vast amount of resources at their disposal throughout the year, from their team owners, teammates, as well as their crew members and peers to turn to at each and every race this year. Along with that, they have experience, which is something that isn't taught but acquired through wisdom and endurance. Some of those lessons were painful and others were pleasant, making them well-rounded individuals who've got the same objective: to drop the hammer for wins and championships.
They may not be the next Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, or Jimmie Johnson. In fact, they may have average careers in NASCAR. Then again, they're here right now and the Cup series has itself an awesome rookie battle that deserves the attention it will get all year long.
Change is what they represent to the sport, as fresh faces that symbolize the evolution of the sport since its good ole' Southern boys times. Call it "man against woman," "boy versus girl," or simply the best rookie race in years.
For this writer who'll be watching their battle all year long, it's going to be a great story at every race and one where it'll be interesting to see if they'll grow and succeed after each moment at the track as well as off-the-track.
New fans will be ushered into NASCAR in part because of those two talents who'll get to know the sport and hopefully become lifelong lovers of the greatest sport there is in this world.
When the race is tallied up in November, there's going to be a definitive winner : you, the race fan. Entertainment will be had from their sound bytes as well as their hard racing.
Most importantly, these are two of the freshest talents right now who'll be looking to make a name for themselves to become immortalized NASCAR Sprint Cup icons for the history books years down the road.