Why Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Rivalry Romance Is Great for NASCAR

Christopher LeoneSenior Analyst IFebruary 8, 2013

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 03:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Sega Sonic the Hedgehog/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #6 NOS Energy Drink Ford, talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series O'Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway on November 3, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Ahh, young love. Is there anything more exhilarating?

For Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year candidates Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the answer is probably yes—the rush of 200 mile-per-hour racing side by side with 30 of your closest rivals, signaling your first work weekend of the year.

But for the rest of us, there are few things more exciting than that early stage in a relationship, where nothing can go wrong. And with Patrick and Stenhouse in that phase, their rivalry on the track and romance off of it could be a huge boon for NASCAR in a crucial year for the sport.

Those who worry that the budding romance could affect how the two race one another this year may be getting worked up over nothing. After all, this isn't the first time two drivers in a national NASCAR series have dated.

During the 1990s, the then-Busch Series featured a pair of married drivers, Elton Sawyer and Patty Moise. Sawyer was a perennial championship contender during that decade, while Moise set a speed record at Talladega in January 1990 by turning a lap at 217.498 miles per hour in a closed-course test.

The biggest difference from that era to this one, of course, is the level of attention that Patrick and Stenhouse will receive, especially given their high-profile rides.

While Patrick is by no means the first female racer at NASCAR's highest level, she's the one with the best opportunity to succeed; meanwhile, Stenhouse has to fill the shoes of two-time Daytona 500 winner and former Cup champion Matt Kenseth at Roush Fenway Racing.

What will really make this pair interesting, though, remains their battle for Rookie of the Year.

Both are expected to win—Patrick by her sponsors and legions of fans. Stenhouse by the logic of having won the past two Nationwide Series championships. Both have demanding owners in Tony Stewart and Jack Roush, respectively, and both are going to push themselves to the limit for bragging rights over the other.

The best part about the Patrick-Stenhouse faceoff?

Not only will they be the sport's first bona fide Rookie of the Year contenders in quite a while, but those battles only take account of a driver's best 17 finishes over the 36-race season. It's likely that the chase for the honor goes all the way down to the season finale in Homestead.

A compelling head-to-head battle through the entire Sprint Cup schedule?

Forget the budding relationship—that's enough to get any NASCAR fan excited no matter what.

For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.