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Thursday, February 14, 2013
NASCAR's plot thickens with Danica-Ricky romance

By Brant James

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.  The title would be "Racing Hearts," and the paperback cover would be Harlequin Romance splendor: All fire suits, cowboy hats and embraces against the silhouette of a flag stand.

He would be a 20-something from the South, she a divorcing 30-something from the Midwest who had become a cosmopolitan star of race tracks and red carpets. It would be a nearly implausible story line even for pulp romance novels, but, alas, the now publicly acknowledged coupling of one of NASCAR's most popular drivers, Danica Patrick, and two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has confirmed it as nonfiction.

That Patrick, 30, and Stenhouse, 25, are the lone contestants for the Sprint Cup rookie of the year award makes the plot line all the more tidy and absurd at the same time. For better or worse, it is a topic that will meander through the upcoming NASCAR season, which began unofficially Thursday with the annual NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway.

For Patrick, the relationship is now an open book. And she seemed content and relieved in openly discussing her next chapter.

There's a lot of Cup guys out there running around, and hopefully it showed my ability to work through traffic and my ability to get to the front. Hopefully that'll help for tomorrow.

-- Danica Patrick

"There's definitely going to be a line," she said of discussing her personal life. "I'm not going to go into details about my private life all the time, but I understand there is a curiosity for this, and, to be quite honest, it's my life and I have always done everything to my comfort zone level, and once it starts to go beyond that I just stop.

"I'm just relaxed. I feel happy. I'm just enjoying my life, and it makes me smile to talk about him."

Most NASCAR drivers were talking about them Thursday -- because almost all were asked -- and many chuckled when mulling how a personal relationship could have titillating impact on the racetrack. Literally. Most found the possibilities amusing as long as relationship stress didn't play out within wrecking radius of their race car.

Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson suggested contact between the pair would be a television ratings boon because, he said, "Danica has shown that she can get quite upset at times," and defending champ Brad Keselowski puckishly pondered how interesting a post-relationship spat could be for the couple.

When asked whether drivers had any inkling the friends who met in a 2010 Nationwide Series rookie meeting could evolve into a couple, Cup driver Joey Logano responded, "Ray Charles saw that one coming."

Patrick admitted dating a competitor was initially "a little bit of a mental hurdle," but she is comfortable enough with the notion now to quip about the tardy luggage that had just arrived, including "a whole bag dedicated to Valentine's Day."

"I said it's like the Capulets and the Montagues with, like, Chevy and Ford," said Patrick, wielding a "Romeo and Juliet" reference, "and I'm like, 'This isn't going to work.' You can't tell your heart who to like or to not like, so in the end, it ended up being something I didn't think was a big deal at all."

Patrick said Stenhouse had reservations about becoming the most race-credentialed plus-one in the series. He admits a first Cup victory might be dismissed as "Danica's boyfriend won a race" but said he is unaffected by inquiries and glad his name has been left out of headlines he claims not to read anyway.

"A little while back he was talking about not wanting people to look at him or stare at him, and I was like, 'You better get used to that because there's going to be a lot of people looking at you,' " Patrick recalled. "He said, 'No, they're not, they're going to be looking at you.'

"And I said, 'No they're not, they're going to be looking at you, as well.'"

But Stenhouse, absent the cowboy hat he often wears, was at ease with a barrage of relationship questions Thursday, such as what attracted him to her -- "she's hot," he conceded -- whether they would chronicle their exploits on Twitter, or if they would walk on Daytona Beach on Thursday night.

"We've talked about it," he said of handling increased notoriety. "She can definitely help out with that because she's experienced a lot of it. Y'all don't get to me, and it doesn't bother me what you say. I don't read articles. It doesn't really bother me."

Patrick is accustomed to such scrutiny, but Stenhouse, despite his success, will be inundated as never before. And while Patrick continues to make a transition to stock car racing from open wheel with the understanding there remains much to learn, Stenhouse comes with instant expectations at Roush Fenway Racing after replacing former series champion Matt Kenseth.

They will be watching closely when Patrick and Stenhouse continue racing around each other beginning this week in preparation for the Daytona 500. Patrick admits they often don't put up much of a "fight" when one -- usually Stenhouse -- passes with a faster car. It's a dynamic she said she doesn't expect to change.

"I don't see us putting up a huge battle," she said. "But I'm guessing as we keep getting better over the year and over the years, you know, we'll end up having to race each other harder because they're going to be for better spots. But in general, it's going to be just like it always has been.''

But if Stenhouse wrecks Patrick, a scenario that earlier had induced chuckles from Johnson &

"He better have a really good, 'I'm sorry,' " Patrick said, inciting more laughter.

Stenhouse agreed he won't treat Patrick differently from any other driver and won't ride to her rescue.

"If somebody crashes her, it's not like I'm going to go crash somebody because of it," he said. "I'm out there to do my job."

Keselowski quipped on a recent appearance on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" that true intrigue awaited if the pair dissolved and began wrecking each other.

"That's going to be way better of a story," he said. "Like, 'Last time I was around, you didn't take the laundry out and that's why we broke up, and I'm going to wreck you.' Or, 'You stuck me with the bill.' I mean, that kind of stuff, to me, is going to be way more exciting than them actually dating."

Stenhouse discounted the comment by asking, "Coming from somebody that's never had a girlfriend?"

Documented evidence of couples racing together is sparse and devoid of intrigue. Sara and Frank Christian raced against each other in the predecessor of the Cup series in 1949 without incident, as did Patty Moise and Elton Sawyer in the Nationwide Series in the 1990s.

But none had Twitter or Tumblr stoking a voracious hunger for celebrity gossip. And both of those couples were married. Pictures of Patrick and Stenhouse together at a rodeo preceded their public admission of a romantic relationship by just a few days.

Debate continues whether the relationship is a distraction from a sport with its own mechanical story lines this season -- a Gen Y champion, a new Gen 6 race car -- or a new lure for a fickle mainstream that has drifted away. Perhaps a sport that is retrenching after disconcerting lapses in both television ratings and attendance the last several years should not begrudge any buzz.

"There is one thing people love and that is drama in life, and how often have we had one that involves a supposed romance between drivers?" said former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler. "This is true Valentine candy for every track operator because even non-fans will read about this.

"Danica probably got more attention by far last year than any non-winning NASCAR driver in history. I wondered what could upstage that. Well, we found out: Danica's romantic endeavors."