In the spotlight, Stenhouse Jr. stays cool

NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. knew it was coming. And he was ready.

The reigning two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion smiled politely as the interrogation into his love life began Thursday afternoon at NASCAR's Media Day Fueled by Sunoco. His girlfriend and fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year competitor Danica Patrick had already spoken with reporters earlier in the day and had, for all intents and purposes, warmed the crowd.

This was the first time Stenhouse has spoken at length about the relationship, and he insisted that his life hasn't changed much since the couple went public three weeks ago.

"Not many people notice me out there and it has been fine," said Stenhouse, who takes over the Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Best Buy Ford this season. "I have been spending most of my time in the shop though. I don't go out a ton. Everything has been good. Everything is great."

The two seemed almost giddy speaking about one another and their new relationship. Their participation in the Daytona 500 was clearly a subtext to the day. And they had capitulated to the idea.

Stenhouse was quick to answer the question of what attracted him to Patrick.

"Is that a question really?" he asked, shaking his head with a grin. "She's hot.

"No," he quickly added, "we have had a friendship for a long time and I can't cook and she can. She loves to cook, so that is nice and I love to eat. We get along really well. I have never had someone that I can talk racing with, and I wasn't 100 percent sure how I would like that but I have enjoyed it. I think we can learn a lot from each other and be successful."

It's getting used to the scrutiny and interest in his personal life that has posed the bigger challenge for the normally private Stenhouse.

"I think that people question whether you all should report on it or not,'' Stenhouse chided reporters with a smile. "Obviously it is a big story. It isn't my most important story. I am here to race, but it is something that you are going to have to deal with and just move on.

"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."

The way they will race one another was a major topic during Thursday's day-long interview session at Daytona International Speedway.

Fellow drivers took comedic jabs at the situation. Reigning Sprint Cup Series champ Brad Keselowski insisted the real story with the Stenhouse-Patrick relationship would occur once they broke up. To which Stenhouse responded with a grin, "That's coming from someone that has never had a girlfriend.''

As for racing alongside Patrick, Stenhouse insisted, "I think for everybody to assume it is going to make me race any different is wrong.

"It's not going to. I am respectful to my teammates and I will be respectful to her, but I am respectful to everyone on the race track. I don't feel like if somebody crashes her I am going to go crash them because of it.

"I am out there to do my job. I am out there to put on the best performance I can for my sponsors and my team and my fans. I can't get caught up in any of that. She has been racing for a long time and can handle that situation and I will handle mine. You are probably going to give her a break but it is nothing other than a teammate."

He did, however, joke that if Patrick was running alongside one of his teammates out front on the final lap of the Daytona 500 that instead of choosing which one to get behind and push to victory, "At Daytona there is enough room for three, so I am going three-wide. That is a good scenario. I hope we win."

In the meantime, the two drivers planned to celebrate their first Valentine's Day together in a motor coach in the Daytona International Speedway infield.

The 25-year-old Mississippi native Stenhouse -- prone to cowboy hats, big belt buckles and old-fashioned country music -- said he got Patrick "a deck of fancy playing cards."

The 30-year-old Patrick -- who has a fondness for $1,000 stilettos, fine wine and Alanis Morissette music -- shared that she had an entire suitcase "dedicated to Valentine's Day" and was going to cook dinner for Stenhouse.

"We are happy and that is good, right?'' Stenhouse said. "I feel like what I have learned in my career in racing is that anytime you are happy off the race track it tends to show up on the race track. That is one good thing that we have going.

"We are both happy, we are focused on racing and having fun."

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