Stenhouse scores Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors

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Performance-wise, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s inaugural Sprint Cup season was a far cry from the back-to-back championship years in the Nationwide Series that preceded it. But it was still enough to earn him the 2013 Rookie of the Year title in NASCAR’s top division.

“All in all, it was a huge learning experience,” Stenhouse said in summing up his season. “[I’m] thankful we made it through, it’s behind us now. We can move on to next year, look on improving every spot at every track that we can in the final points standings.”

The Mississippi native didn’t log his first Top-10 result of the year until finishing 10th in the regular season finale at Richmond in September. However, he managed to get through without suffering a DNF, netting an average finish of 18.9 en route to a 19th-place showing in the standings.

By contrast, Stenhouse’s Rookie of the Year rival and girlfriend, Danica Patrick, had what one would charitably call a “character-building” debut year in Cup.

After finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, the former IndyCar star was unable to turn in another Top-10 finish for the remainder of the schedule. Poor qualifying (average start: 30.1) didn’t help matters and on race day, it wasn’t much better for Patrick, who had an average finish of 26.1. Additionally, she had five DNFs.

For his part, Stenhouse said that he and Patrick didn’t particularly focus on their rookie battle outside of a light bit of joking over the situation. He also maintained that both of them learned a lot as Cup freshmen.

“We both wanted to just finish as best we could each and every week,” he said. “Then ultimately, in the final points standings of the whole field, I was shooting for a Top-15 [finish] – didn’t quite get that.

“But all in all, I think we both had decent years…We both have a lot to work on throughout the off-season and through next year.”

In that regard, Stenhouse said he needed to improve on learning the right adjustments to make during practice in preparation for the races.

“We still struggled with that a little bit,” he said. “But then again, I know that’s what we need to work on. We got our qualifying efforts better. We start the race a lot better; we just have to finish it off.

“Next year, that’s the biggest thing, just finishing the races kind of where we start them.”

Stenhouse’s best result this year was a third-place effort at Talladega last month.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.