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Ricky Stenhouse, Danica Patrick comfortable as couple

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CONCORD, N.C -- They appeared in a video promoting the fan vote for the upcoming Sprint All-Star Race, were spotted by television cameras watching the Nationwide Series race in the closed-off backstretch grandstands at Richmond, and last weekend made a foray through the Talladega infield.

Clearly, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick are comfortable as NASCAR's most famous couple.

"I feel good about where we are," Stenhouse said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "She's racing, I'm racing. It hasn't been uncomfortable at any moment. We're just regular people having a relationship."

That's something of a change from the very early days of the relationship, which was under wraps until Patrick announced publicly in January that the two were dating. Since then Patrick's divorce has been finalized, and she and Stenhouse have been seen together more and more, at the race track and elsewhere.

There was the video put out by Patrick's sponsor, GoDaddy, in which she and Stenhouse each lobbied for the fan vote to next week's all-star event. There was the journey through the Talladega infield, part of a Coca-Cola promotion in which Patrick judged campsites. There was the ESPN broadcast of the Nationwide event at Richmond, which found the two watching the event from the closed-off backstretch seats. There was a recent Chicago Blackhawks game in which Patrick appeared on the ice in between periods.

Patrick drew attention at the NHL playoff game when she shot the puck into the net in her first try. Stenhouse? He was cut out of one of the wire photos from that night, something he laughs about.

"It's all good. I've never really worried about being in the spotlight," he said. "I could care less. If I am, I am. Obviously with her I am a little bit more. But I'm comfortable with it."

Do people notice them out? "People notice her, yes," he joked. "It's still funny. People are telling her, 'Good luck this weekend.' I'm thinking, 'Thanks.' They're not going to tell me good luck. It's funny. She includes me sometime. People ask for a picture, and she's like, 'Hey, come on, get in this picture.' All in all, it's been really fun."

Even so, Stenhouse is still surprised sometimes at how much attention the couple attracts. During his years in the Nationwide Series, he'd occasionally notice Sprint Cup drivers and their friends watching from the track's backstretch grandstands, which aren't sold for that event. He and Patrick did the same two weeks ago -- and the ESPN cameras found them.

"I've never not run the Nationwide race (at Richmond)," Stenhouse said, "so I'm like, 'Let's go up and watch it. I'd like to watch it.' All of the sudden, I'm getting texts, my phone is blowing up, Carl (Edwards) is in the booth sending me pictures saying, 'We see you.' I'm like, 'Thanks.' I thought it was funny ? but yes, I was surprised."

Although his girlfriend often attracts more attention, Stenhouse maintains his identity as a cowboy-hat-wearing former sprint-car driver now competing on NASCAR's premier series. He was at the Charlotte track Thursday with Taylor Earnhardt, a professional rodeo rider and youngest daughter of Dale Earnhardt, as part of a Western-themed promotion for the Sprint All-Star Race.

While his lassoing skills needed some work, Stenhouse looked completely at home on top of a horse, befitting a driver who typically wears cowboy boots and a big belt buckle. His hometown of Olive Branch, Miss., may be outside Memphis, Tenn., but it's still cowboy country -- the area community college even has bull-riding team, he said. Stenhouse started wearing boots because his dad did, and got further hooked on the culture when he met some professional bull riders after moving to North Carolina.

Now, he's looking to buy some land where he can ride horses and raise Texas longhorn cattle. "I want it somewhere in North Carolina," he said. "For the longest time I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to go back to Mississippi.' But I really enjoy going to the race shops and being around here. So I want my land somewhere around here."

He has some friends trying to piece together the acreage for him. And when he finds it, it won't be just for horses and cattle. "I am going to have a motocross track with it as well," he said, laughing. After all, Stenhouse does trade that cowboy hat for a driver's helmet every now and then.

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