Danica's love life steals the show

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Terrible timing on NASCAR's part: moving Daytona media day out of the traditional circus tent into a modern building. Thursday brought the circus of all these annual circuses, the show of all these shows, the zoo of all these zoos, the hoot of all these hoots -- simply the best of all these winter ventures to the edge of absurdity.

At the epicenter, this Valentine's Day, were the landmark lovebirds Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenica, or Danicky, or whatever various melded names were popping out, aren't the first pair of NASCAR drivers to be romantically involved.

But they're far and away the highest profile, and they're the first to head into a full 36-race Cup season in direct competition with each other. NASCAR pioneers Frank and Sarah Christian, a married couple, raced against each other in a beach race here in 1949. And briefly, in the '90s, husband and wife Elton Sawyer and Patty Moise raced in the Nationwide Series.

But there's never been anything remotely like this.

So naturally, inquiring minds want to know, and don't be ashamed to be among those masses. The likes of Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip were right there with you.

The one-liners and jocular predictions were flying, and the happy couple got right in there and mixed it up with the jokesters.

"You know it's really a shame that the two-car tandem is probably not going to work so much [due to NASCAR rule changes], because that really kills our joke material," Keselowski said.

Keselowski reckoned that "it's not as much of a story that they're dating as it would be if they were to break up. That would be incredible to watch. They're so many different ways it could go ...

"I mean, imagine if they were to break up and then wreck each other the next six races because they're mad," Keselowski conjectured. "That would be waaaaaay more compelling."

Told of this, Stenhouse's jaw dropped, but not for the reason you'd think.

"Coming from somebody who's never had a girlfriend?" Stenhouse cracked. (It's not so much that Keselowski doesn't have a girlfriend as that he has a revolving door of dates.)

Clint Bowyer deadpanned that Keselowski "is just mad because Ricky beat him to the punch."

Displays of domestic unrest on the tracks, said Johnson, "would be one heck of a show. I'm sure the ratings would go up quite a bit. So you never know. Danica has shown that she can get quite upset at times."

But Stenhouse "has seemed, as far as payback, pretty focused on doing his job," Johnson said. "He'll drive the car sideways on every lap, which I'm always impressed with. But his mindset in letting things go has been just as impressive."

So I gave Danica the following scenario: What if Stenhouse, driving his car sideways, got into the side of her car? She pondered, showed that patented wicked little smile of hers, hinted at a wink, and deadpanned:

"He better have a really good 'I'm sorry.'"

Then she waited a second for her crowd of media to get it and explode in laughter.

"I got a feeling," she said, "that PR is just sweating their butts off right now."

But nearby, Stewart-Haas Racing publicist Joe Crowley wore a little grin that indicated he thought her one-liner was pretty cool.

And then, from NASCAR's one-liner maestro, Waltrip: "Only thing I wonder about is, do they have one motor coach now, or two? How does that work?"

"Two," Stenhouse said for the record.

Stenhouse and Patrick publicly acknowledged that they're dating last month, but it was no surprise to the garage-area regulars.

"Ray Charles could have seen that one coming," said Joey Logano.

"I'm curious what that means," Danica said when I told her what Logano said. She thought about it. "I've always gotten along with him [Stenhouse], so I guess that's what they observed. They saw something we didn't know about."

In January, Patrick acknowledged that she and her husband of seven years, Paul Hospenthal, were divorcing.

She and Stenhouse had been friends since attending rookie meetings together in the Nationwide Series in 2010. But then recently, "I asked her out on a date -- or she told me to ask her out," Stenhouse said.

"There was one point in time that I asked him to ask me out on a date," Patrick confirmed. "It wasn't that long ago."

Rising star Stenhouse, who has won two straight Nationwide championships and climbs into Matt Kenseth's old ride, the No. 17 Ford, is accustomed to some publicity. But it was nothing like stepping into the limelight with Patrick, who has been in it since she arrived at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.

"A while back, he said something about not wanting to have people looking at him or staring at him," Patrick said. "I told him, 'You'd better get used to that, because there's gonna be a lot of people looking at you.' He said, 'They'll be looking at you.' I said, 'No, they're not. They're gonna be looking at you as well.'"

As Danica Patrick's boyfriend. Which is fine with him. In the romance stories of the past month, "the headlines don't say anything about me," he said. "If we win a race, it might be, 'Danica's boyfriend won a race.'"

Regardless, Stenica or Danicky will be an ongoing story this season. Whether the relationship will affect anything on the track is "obviously a big question in a lot of people's minds," Patrick acknowledged. "As long as we've known each other, we've been racing each other. There are times when you're out on the track that you don't even see each other. You're not even next to each other.

"But every time we have been, it's about respect, and neither of us put up a big fight," she continued.
"I don't see that being any different."

On the tracks, "I'm going to be respectful to her," Stenhouse said. "I've always raced her clean. But I feel like I've raced everybody clean. If somebody wrecks one of my teammates, I'm not gonna go wreck 'em. Same with her. I'm not gonna retaliate. I've got a job to do."

"They're not going to race each other any different than they ever have," Bowyer said. "We're here to race and put on a good show for our fans, not People magazine."

But for media day, Valentine's Day, Danicky and their peers were happy to talk about it.

"It makes me smile to talk about him," Patrick said.

Some reporter, clearly not a NASCAR regular, left Stenhouse with the punch line.

"What attracted you to her?" the newcomer asked.

"Is that a question?" Stenhouse asked incredulously. "Man! She's hot."