Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have hit it off
"This," said the NASCAR media relations rep holding the microphone, "should be good."
Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. entered the media interview room at Iowa Speedway within a few moments of each other, he notably in a cowboy hat, and she expressing less of a fashion expression other than a bright pair of sneakers.
"It's always fun when these two do a press conference together," the rep said, moving toward the stage as the Nationwide Series drivers sidled up to a table on an interview platform.
The session commencing, the rep breezed through the pair's bona fides when Patrick lowered her microphone safely to the table and mumbled something toward Stenhouse, trying not to move her lips. Stenhouse, who had been staring ahead, turned, grinned, nodded with a bit of an odd face, and they momentarily cracked each other up, slackers ignoring a school assembly.
Decorum was restored at the Nationwide standalone event in May, where Stenhouse, the defending series champion and a multiple-winner at Iowa, and Patrick were main show pieces. Later, though, Patrick needled Stenhouse about why he had run into the wall in consecutive weeks trying to pass her during practice at Darlington Raceway and Iowa.
"Saw ya again, hit the wall," Stenhouse deadpanned. "Breaks my concentration."
Patrick is one of the most recognizable, marketable drivers in motorsports. She's competing in her first full-time Nationwide Series season with JR Motorsports in conjunction with a partial Sprint Cup campaign for Stewart Haas Racing, with team owner Tony Stewart's stated goal being a full Cup launch in 2013. Stenhouse recently has been chosen by team owner Jack Roush to join Roush Fenway's Sprint Cup arsenal fulltime when 2003 series champion and team stalwart Matt Kenseth departs after this season.
Different routes and experiences brought them to this point in their careers, but a common experience -- the humbling, pressurized process of not failing at a critical and scrutinized career juncture -- brought them together as friends in Nationwide rookie meetings in 2010.
Patrick, 30, was still a full-time IndyCar driver running a partial Nationwide schedule and more than a year from telling Andretti Autosport officials she would leave for a full-time NASCAR career beginning this season. Stenhouse, 24, was the latest in a series of promising young drivers acquired by Roush's highly competitive and demanding developmental system. He was crashing race cars in droves early in the season, and it made him question how he could continue vying with the likes of eventual 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne for any future openings in Roush's veteran Cup lineup. But he remained polite if not chivalrous, which is how he and Patrick struck up their first conversations.
"We would always have rookie meetings together and they were always kind of full, so I would get up and give her my seat," Stenhouse recalled. "That's just kind of how we met and how we became friends, and any time she asked for help, I'm there to give her help as much as I can. It's a good relationship."
Each felt their own personal form of pressure and scrutiny, and in their unique but common experience, a friendship developed.
"We got along from the very beginning," Patrick said. "He's really respectful. He wants to help me. He makes me trust him. There's no bad intent. He's just protective and nice, a really good friend."
Stenhouse still attends many Nationwide rookie meetings, providing advice and a living embodiment of what lies beyond difficult times with the proper amount of persistence and talent.
"I tell them as much as I can about never giving up and keeping digging because I've been there and done that and it's been a struggle sometimes, but that's one thing I tell her all the time, is she might struggle one place, but 'If you look at how many races you've run, it's not that many,'" he said. "'You've got a while to figure it out.'"
Stenhouse said Patrick has done a "great job" so far this season as she is ninth in driver points entering Friday night's event at Daytona International Speedway. He's in a better position than almost anyone outside her JR Motorsports team to make such an assessment, as he's one of her trusted pre-race advisers and post-race confidantes, sharing grouses about a particular driver or advice on a track or driving line.
"I'll ask him, 'Now, you're just flat-out around here all the way around, right?'" Patrick grinned. "And he'll just say, 'No, ma'am.'"
For all the information Stenhouse has imparted, he's not had any luck converting Patrick into a country music fan. Though Patrick said she enjoyed a recent music video shoot for the song "Fastest Girl in Town" with recording artist Miranda Lambert -- "we could be trouble together," Patrick quipped -- and tactfully acknowledges country's association with the sport and many of its fans, her tastes skew more toward grunge. That sometimes makes sharing a radio with Stenhouse a chore, although they have found compromise on Sirius XM's Classic Rewind, she said.
"I did finally listen to a little bit of country," she said. "We were listening one time and he was naming every one. Here's George Strait, here's Garth Brooks. If I'm going to listen to his music, then sometimes he needs to listen to my Pearl Jam or Bush or Alice in Chains."
That one sticking point aside, Stenhouse said Patrick had done well melding herself with a new culture as well as a new form of motorsports. In doing so, she has changed his preconceived notions about the mainstream star walking into a second-tier series rookie meeting in 2010.
"She was pretty hard on maybe herself and everybody else on the IndyCar side of it, but when I met her, she was super nice and easy to talk to, easy to get along with," he said. "I think she's just kind of one of us. I think everybody in our sport seems to be fairly laid back, and when she came over to our sport it kind of helped her relax a little bit."
It's good to be among friends.