Every year around this time before the start of the new race season, NASCAR lays on a week-long programme of events for the media during which the series officials and each of the bigger teams in the Sprint Cup championship take it in turns to put on press conferences, presentations and media appearances to announce their latest news.
Rules and regulations updates, driver changes, new Gen-6 cars and new sponsors were all part of the diet for reporters attending this impeccably organised roadshow. Stars of the series from Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne were wheeled out to answer reporters questions (and in Kahne's case get roundly mocked for an 'interesting' new hairstyle.) And it was all going according to routine this year, with a steady drip of interesting if not entirely earth-shaking stories for the media, when suddenly everything changed on Friday morning.
It was Danica Patrick who dropped the weapon of mass distraction, in a phone interview with the Associated Press
: "I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard," was all it took.
For celebrity gossip magazines and US tabloids, news that Danica is dating anyone new at all would be enough to keep them in headlines for months. She is one of the most famous sporting personalities in the US and the media spotlight on her is intensive, certainly far in excess of that of any other motor racing star in the US. When she announced the end of her seven-year marriage to 47-year-old physical therapist Paul Hospenthal in November (the two filed final divorce papers at the start of this month), the paparazzi were immediately on the look-out for any signs of a prospective new romantic interest for her. Some even thought that Danica was looking rather cosy of late with one of her fellow Sprint Cup drivers in particular.
It was Danica's Friday confirmation that the 'Richard' to whom she referred was indeed the current, two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that blew the US media's collective mind; and at the same time, made it a story that even the most pure-minded of NASCAR reporters couldn't avoid being pulled headlong into the abyss as well.
"I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this," the 30-year-old told the AP
, after the previous four days of media activity had left both her and Stenhouse ducking questions about the nature of their relationship. "I know there's been a bit of a runaround this week at the media days and poor Ricky got grilled," she added, explaining that they had really not wanted to distract away from the legitimate racing news during NASCAR's press week.
No hope of that not happening once the news did finally break, however. As current Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski put it, the only thing that will knock the Patrick/Stenhouse story out of the NASCAR headlines in the foreseeable future would be if fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. were to win the Daytona 500 and Juan Montoya rear-end another jet dryer. And not just separately: "Those two would have to happen at same time," Keselowski laughed.
Even with that, it's hard to see the Danica/Ricky story being usurped for very long in any circumstances. After all, it's officially the first time in a major American sports division that two competitors have had a romantic relationship going in, and most of Friday was spent by people trying out new 'cute' celebrity couple nicknames for the pair (Stenica? Patricky? RickDan? Danricky? Danicky? Have your own fun with this at home.) Danica herself is used to being forever at the eye of the media storm, but you have to wonder whether Stenhouse himself knows just what he's let himself in for.
"Welcome to Kim Kardashian's world!" laughed former F1 star and now NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Scott Speed, himself no stranger to press attention and who also met his own future wife Amanda, a motorsports PR professional, in the race paddock. "It's going to be a life experience [for Ricky], that's for sure."