DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After winning pole position for Sunday's Daytona 500, the public focus and the fan pressure to win the Great American Race has descended on Danica Patrick.
Famous driver, historic moment, grand stage.
Yet standing inside her hauler Wednesday afternoon inside Daytona International Speedway, Patrick simply laughed away the burden of sudden expectations. Oh, she feels the urgency with such a fast car. And she gets the importance of the groundbreaking accomplishment – she'll be the first woman to start from the pole in NASCAR's biggest race. This, however, is the modern, carefree Danica – new boyfriend, new attitude. She has little time for pressure.
"This is a cool week," Patrick acknowledged. "And I feel really relaxed."
That wasn't always the case with Patrick, who's been in the spotlight since bursting onto the racing scene in 2005 when she led the Indy 500 and nearly won the thing. Soon she'd be a famous duel threat racer/swimsuit model.
She was a bit more programmed then. A bit more guarded.
Now 30 and officially filed for divorce from her husband of seven years, she hardly cares what anyone thinks of her. Well, other than boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., a fellow Sprint Cup driver. Patrick is hardly shy about sharing details of their relationship, even how and where they're spending their time here at the infield of Daytona.
"We both have buses here but we stay on one bus," Patrick said. "He just bought a new bus at the end of last year. It's very, very nice. We were staying on his bus but he has a friend here now, so his friend is staying there and now we are in my bus. But we'd eat on my bus, no matter what.
"Mine has more food," she explained. "I cook breakfast, eggs and oatmeal, toast, things like that. Fruit. Then you know, for the rest of the day, chicken, steak, salmon, veggies. And I have all the rices and beans. All the stuff you need. All the spices, knives, cutting boards.
"All he's got is sweet tarts, cereal and Chips-A-Hoy."
So there you go. Want to hear about their first "date?" Stenhouse admitted last week he couldn't even recall the restaurant.
"I should probably remember," the 25-year-old Mississippian acknowledged.
Patrick isn't upset.
"I don't think we went out," she said.
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Patrick explained the two were together in Chicago when she mentioned to him that "you've never really asked me out on a date."
"He said, 'Well, I'm not going to ask you out now, you just told me to.' So it was a couple days later and he called and I called him back and he said, 'Hey, I just wanted to ask if you'd like to go out to dinner and a movie with me on Thursday night.' And I thought, 'Ohhh, so cute.'
"But we definitely didn't see a movie and I'm guessing we ate in. So I don't remember either."
This isn't a traditional line of questioning for Daytona 500 contenders, but Patrick and Stenhouse seem to be reveling in it. Stenhouse's media conference last week opened with 19 consecutive questions about Danica.
"Nineteen?" Patrick said. "Ouch."
And that was just the start. The questions ranged from what did you get Danica for Valentine's Day – "Fancy playing cards," Stenhouse said – to perhaps the most ridiculous racing inquiry ever.
Did you have any hesitation dating Danica with the whole Chevy [Patrick] vs. Ford [Stenhouse] angle?
Seriously, this was asked.
"I'm going to guess he said no," Patrick said. (She's correct.)
"That would be ridiculous," Patrick said. "Ford and Chevy? American-made, that's what matters."
With that she hoisted a water bottle in the air in a mock toast.
"'Merica!" she said, laughing.
If this sounds like someone giddy over a new relationship and not a bit engulfed in worry about everyone asking if she can actually win the big race and then compete across her first full season of the elite Sprint Cup Series, then you're only getting part of it.
Patrick was never quite the ice queen that some portrayed her to be, but she also wasn't this open about all aspects of her life. The battle for on-track credibility seemed to hang over everything. She was fiercely determined to be more than a pretty face. Now? Well, she still wants to prove herself on the track, but she is having fun.
"I think I'm just less guarded and I hope it doesn't come back to bite me," she said. "Overall it's just easier. I just think I'm not so worried about what people might say.
"If you want to write something, write something. I don't mind joking about being a girl; I don't mind joking about Ricky and I being together. Anything. Driving a car. GoDaddy commercials."
Patrick and Stenhouse understand that two drivers having a romantic relationship is an unavoidable storyline. Still, they could've come to Daytona, acknowledged the situation and then asked that their private life remain private. But instead of shutting the questions down, they are embracing it.
"I think that's the part about not caring what people say, what they write, what they think," she said. "And it's also genuinely being excited about [the relationship]. So why should I hide it?
"We're happy to talk about each other. We laugh and smile when we talk about each other. I'm smiling right now."
She was. When was the last time she saw him?
"I just came from his bus," she said. "He had to fly to an appearance so I went and said bye."
He'll be back soon enough. And this weekend, as the race draws near and the reality of the opportunity comes into focus, she promises it will be all business. She is here to try to win and her happy private life isn't getting in the way of that. If anything, it's a positive. Maybe the entire thing has relaxed a driver once known for her profound intensity.
And with a car that's blazing fast headed into the sport's signature event, there is no better time for that.
"Whenever there is more potential in the car, it is sort of a little bit extra pressure on myself to do well," she said.
So Sunday, when she's introduced in the front of the field and women and girls around the country watch with some pride, Patrick will acknowledge the accomplishment. Then she'll forget it all, forget that her boyfriend is one of her competitors, and race the hell out of everything.
Yes, she acknowledges, she still lacks experience in a stock car.
"It doesn't mean I can't win," she said.
Here in this very cool week in the life of the new Danica Patrick, it's foolish to think there is anything she can't do.
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