Patrick happier than ever, on and off the track

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Danica Patrick traditionally winds down each season with a series of interviews designed to reflect on the past year and look ahead at what’s next for one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

She deliberately left something out of her 2012 exit interviews, waiting until two days after the season ended to announce she was divorcing her husband after seven years of marriage. So as she relaxed earlier this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a motorhome parked near the bus boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., it was imperative to get the important stuff out of the way first: Was she planning any bombshell announcements in the next week? Pregnant? Engaged?

“Pregnant? No. I can promise you not,” Patrick laughed. “The other one? I don’t know. I’m the girl. It could be never, it could be tomorrow.”

Patrick, who disclosed two months after announcing her divorce that she and Stenhouse were dating, is open to getting married again.

“I would, absolutely. I love love,” she told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview. “But if I’m getting married is not a question I know the answer to. Should we go get Ricky and you can ask him yourself?”

This is the new Danica Patrick, who for most of her career has been viewed as guarded, even cold. She was light and playful as the sometimes scantily clad “GoDaddy Girl” in all those Super Bowl commercials, but she was strictly business at the race track, where she has struggled to put together results to match the hype.

Patrick was, in all regards, an enigma.

She spent five seasons driving for Michael Andretti in the IndyCar Series, and the team owner saw a seismic shift in Patrick as her superstar status exploded far beyond the small world of open-wheel racing.

She began dabbling in NASCAR in 2010, and left Andretti behind when she made the full-time jump to stock cars in 2012. He has followed her from afar since, and thought he recognized Danica from simpler times when he saw her become the first woman in history to win the pole at the Daytona 500 earlier this year.

“Now that her husband’s out of there _ he was not a good influence on her, I can tell you that,” Andretti said in March, two months after Patrick’s historic run at Daytona. “That’s when things went south with us when he started getting involved. He was very controlling. Had her think in funny ways. She was getting out of control. Her head was getting so big. You just couldn’t talk to her. I’m hoping she’s coming back down to Earth a little bit.”

If Patrick needed to become more grounded, her two years in NASCAR have given her that, cowboy boots and all.

Stenhouse, a Mississippi native who’d never visited New York City before he began dating Patrick, has had a total transformation on the one-time diva in the designer heels. Asked how Stenhouse has changed her, she flips rapidly through her phone showing pictures of the couple at various country music concerts. Her taste in music has changed so much that Patrick will join Trace Adkins as co-host of the American Country Awards on Dec. 10.

She watches dirt track racing, goes to Professional Bull Riding events and has taken up golf, improving from an inability to hit the ball to trash-talking with Stenhouse and confidently wagering with him there will come a day she will beat him on the links.

“I’d say I have a lot more fun doing a lot of different things,” Patrick said. “There’s a lot more things that I’ve tried for the first time this year and I’m open to doing, whether it’s going skeet shooting or learning how to play golf. The fun we’ve had having our families here on the weekend, just having everybody stay on the buses and be with us. It’s just been a great year.”

And that goes for the track, too, regardless of what the statistics show.

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