AROUND THE TRACK: Danica’s boyfriend in her shadow

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DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - He is presently known as one half of “Stenica” or “Danicky” or whatever nickname NASCAR’s power couple has been given.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., of course, is far more than Danica Patrick’s boyfriend. He is the two-time Nationwide Series champion, and he is making the move to the big league this season as the replacement driver at Roush-Fenway Racing for two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.

Casual fans probably don’t know much about Stenhouse’s accomplishments, which have been overlooked since he and Patrick announced in January they were dating. The couple will compete against each other for Sprint Cup rookie of the year this season.

Stenhouse, so far, has been OK with the attention.

“Obviously, it is a big story,” he said. “It just isn’t my most important story. I am here to race. I think once the season gets going and we can talk about how great this Gen-6 car is going to be and how great the racing is going to be, hopefully it can take a back seat and we can focus on our racing.”

So just who is Danica’s new man?

The 25-year-old Mississippi native, often seen wearing a cowboy hat and a huge silver belt buckle celebrating one of his Nationwide titles, became the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win back-to-back Nationwide titles.

In the season finale at Homestead last season, when his spotter was imploring him to lay back and race conservatively to wrap up the title, Stenhouse keyed the mic so he couldn’t hear him anymore. He races hard and doesn’t hold back on the track, something Tony Stewart learned while fielding sprint cars for a young Stenhouse.

Stewart, who turns wrecked chassis into artificial reefs, said: “I’ve got a lot of race car frames in my lake that have his name on them on cars that he crashed.”

“The hardest part was pulling the reins back in on him,” Stewart said. “There were races he’d have half a lap lead on second place and crash the car with 10 laps to go. That was the hard stuff to get him to understand, is you don’t have to go 100 percent every lap. That’s stuff that he’s learned in the last couple years in Nationwide, is how to take his aggressive style and at the same time be smart about it, make it work to his advantage.”

Stenhouse got a promotion this year from RFR to replace Kenseth, the 2004 Cup champion who left for Joe Gibbs Racing. He will drive the No. 17 Ford and his move up coincides with Patrick‘s, who will also be racing full-time in Cup this year.

The two became close over the last two years, first in Nationwide rookie meetings together, then as Patrick leaned on Stenhouse when she went full-time last year in the series. When the relationship became romantic, Patrick worried how Stenhouse would handle the attention when they went public.

“I was a little concerned in the beginning because he doesn’t like people looking at him, and I was like, `You are going to have to get over that real fast,’” Patrick said. “But he seems like he’s having fun, and it doesn’t bother him, and I feel like it’s given him an opportunity to be himself more. I don’t know why that is. He just seems to be looser, doesn’t mind talking to people or doing things, whether it’s backflips or jokes or whatever.”

Patrick, a star already used to the spotlight, had conversations with Stenhouse on what to expect and how to handle the newfound fame.

“We have talked about it. She can definitely help out with that because she has experienced a lot of it,” Stenhouse said, adding the media “don’t get to me and it doesn’t bother me what you say. I don’t read articles so it doesn’t really bother me. She knows I spend my time at the shop and focused on our racing.”

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