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Danica reveals she's dating fellow driver

26 January 2013

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."

Although Stenhouse himself confirmed to the AP on Friday that "Yes, we are dating," the 25-year-old has otherwise refrained from commenting. When he'd been pressed for details by reporters the previous day at the Roush Fenway media session after rumours had spiked following press sightings of the two of them (together with a group of friends) attending a Professional Bull Riders event last weekend, he'd kept it as light and vague as possible.

"We've got a great relationship," Stenhouse had said on Thursday. "Obviously that started when she first came into the sport. We were both going to rookie meetings. It's been cool to work with her in the Nationwide Series. I felt she could come to me for advice with the experience that I've had." In turn, Patrick was able to use her media savvy to persuade the Mississippi-born Stenhouse to finally get a decent haircut and drop the rather embarrassing mullet he'd been sporting up till then.

But now the two are officially an 'item', does it throw up any larger issues for them competing against each other in this year's Sprint Cup battle where both are running their maiden full-season campaigns in the championship, and will be fighting head to head for the rookie of the year title? Moreover, they won't even be team mates on track: Patrick is racing for Stewart-Haas while Stenhouse is moving into Matt Kenseth's old seat in the #17 for Roush Fenway. So what happens when they have to choose between each other and their official team mates? Will either one of them pull their punches where the other is concerned? Will it blunt their competitive edge and prove a distraction?

"I don't think their competitive decisions are going to be challenged very much by their off-track relationship," said fellow driver Landon Cassill, who has raced both Patrick and Stenhouse in the last year He pointed out that it was no different from having other family members (like the Dillon, Busch and Wallace brothers) competing in the same race for different teams.

"There won't be many laps go by that he won't be thinking, 'Where's Danica?'", Rusty Wallace told ESPN SportsCenter about his own experiences racing family in NASCAR. "Found myself looking at them all the time. I definitely had emotions racing against my brothers."

"Ricky might choose Danica over me in a drafting situation, but that's fine," Cassill told USA Today, adding that the Wild West sensibility of doing 'anything to win' was actually one of the most appealing aspects of the sport. "If drafting at Daytona with your girlfriend is what it takes to win, there will not be an asterisk next to the trophy," he pointed out.

For her part, Patrick said that once they hit the track it would be business as usual, pointing out that they'd raced against each other for two years with no problems and that they had always got along.

"We've always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there's never been an issue out there," she insisted. "I always say I'll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don't anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track."

As far as Roush Fenway is concerned, all this is none of the team's business as long as the drivers get on and do their job: "Our policy at Roush Fenway Racing has always been to let our drivers address their own personal lives," said RFR president Steve Newmark. "We recognise that they have lives beyond the track, and we wish them the best in any of their personal relationships, but don't feel that it is our role as a race team to discuss those relationships."

You could almost hear the team sprinting as fast and as far away from the story as they could get, and the same sense of hasty decorum was evident from the official NASCAR reaction to the news as well.

"This relationship in no way violates any rules or regulations of the sport," was the opinion of NASCAR spokesman David Higdon. "We have zero concerns, particularly since we're talking about two fiercely competitive individuals who both want to win NASCAR races and be the best at what they do."

Many fellow Sprint Cup drivers didn't want to respond to questions about the Danica/Ricky situation, but former Cup champion Jeff Gordon did tweet with an implied pained sigh: "We live in a world today where drama, controversy & who's dating who is what people want to read."

Inevitably, once the season gets under way next month at Daytona, Patrick and Stenhouse can expect to take a lot of ribbing from their fellow drivers up and down pit lane now that the news is in the public domain.

Brad Keselowski was by no means the first when he said tongue-in-cheek that he was concerned that the relationship might violate NASCAR's testing policy. "NASCAR needs to step in, because there's a testing rule in NASCAR where you can't test," he quipped. "I'm a little concerned about this extra time Danica and Ricky have bump-drafting."

"The bump drafting jokes are cracking me up! Let the fun begin," Danica herself tweeted during the day; and among those re-tweeting the message was a certain Richard Lynn Stenhouse Jr., his only other visible reaction during the day to the news going public.

Keeping a low profile won't be an option for him for much longer, though. And for anyone not completely fascinated in all things Danica and Ricky, 2013 might be an awfully long and frustrating NASCAR experience in which the action on the track is firmly relegated to the back seat compared to the latest updates from the relationship front.


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