DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Danica Patrick slid into her chair at NASCAR media day Thursday and promptly informed her audience it would be race questions only.
Yeah, right. The ensuing 20-plus minutes consisted mostly of questions about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Patrick dutifully answered them all. She and Stenhouse better get used to this, at least in the early going.
“Initially, it was a little bit of a mental hurdle of like, `We compete against each other,’ ” Patrick said of the relationship, which she likened to Romeo and Juliet. “It’s like the Capulets and Montagues with (me in) Chevy and (him in) Ford, this just doesn’t work. But you can’t tell your heart who to like or not like. And so in the end, it ended up being something that I just didn’t think was a big deal at all.”
The two spent the last two seasons racing in the Nationwide Series and Patrick leaned on Stenhouse, the two-time Nationwide champion, for friendship and advice after her move to NASCAR. She said the relationship grew deeper, and they went public after she filed for divorce in early January from her husband, Paul Hospenthal. She and Hospenthal announced in November they were splitting up after seven years of marriage.
The 30-year-old Patrick rarely talked about her personal life while married to Hospenthal, but she was open Thursday about the 25-year-old Stenhouse.
“I’m just relaxed,” Patrick said. “I feel happy. I feel like I am enjoying my life. It makes me smile to talk about him. I feel like I’m on `The Bachelorette.’”
Stenhouse was equally as open, saying “she’s hot!” when asked what attracted him to Patrick before adding “she loves to cook, and I love to eat.” He admitted he’d never heard of the Capulets and Montagues, and refused to say who he would push on the last lap of a race at Daytona if Patrick was battling for the win with one of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates.
“I’m going three-wide,” he smiled. “There’s enough room at Daytona.”
Although the two did not publicly interact Thursday, they are clearly content with their relationship. And because Patrick, who leads all celebrities with 12 Super Bowl ads, is used to being under the media spotlight Stenhouse said he can lean on his girlfriend for guidance as he finds himself suddenly scrutinized.
“I’m fine. The headlines don’t say anything about me,” he said. “I’m taking this seriously. But if I win a race, it might be `Danica’s boyfriend won a race.’”
The relationship is fodder for endless jokes and razzing from fellow competitors, and most were eager to dive into the topic Thursday.
“Pat on the back for him,” said Ty Dillon.
“We can come up with plenty of jokes and how humorous it could be on the track and what each of them are thinking _ we’ll all be watching with great curiosity, for sure,” said Jimmie Johnson.
But if the two have an incident on the track? “That would be one heck of a show,” Johnson said. “I’m sure ratings would go up quite a bit. You never know. Danica has shown she can get quite upset at times, so there could be something going on.”