Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse: quite an item this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
This is embarrassing.
Not for Ricky and Danica. Not yet at least.
But for the poke-and-prodders who are embarrassing themselves, again.
Not even sure if this story even needs to be written... except to show the generally dismal state of journalism in the NASCAR media corps at the moment, that the hottest story so far during Daytona 500 SpeedWeeks is the romance between Ford driver Ricky Stenhouse and Chevy driver Danica Patrick.
Yes, this is the big story at Daytona International Speedway.
Not sure what that says about these journalists or this sport right now. Surely there is more important stuff to consider.
If you, like many, are long since tired of yet another Danica Patrick story, turn the page right here.
More so than Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s two concussions last season and NASCAR's latest actions.
More so than Brad Keselowski, the sport's new champion, and now Ford's newest driver. Keselowski himself was almost forced to add his two cents, in humor, to the 'Stanica' story even to get noticed.
More so than stories like Aric Almirola in Richard Petty's famous 43....or Matt Kenseth now in Toyotas after 14 years with Ford...or Denny Hamlin...or Kyle Busch...or Tony Stewart...or Carl Edwards.
Well, at least until Saturday night's Unlimited/Shootout sprint.
Ricky Stenhouse has a lot to deal with this season, his first full time season on the Sprint Cup tour. Will romance sidetrack him? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The short story: Patrick just divorced her husband of seven years and she is now dating Stenhouse. The two are Sprint Cup rookies, after two years or so on the Nationwide tour, where Stenhouse just won the championship for Jack Roush, and where Patrick has been, uh, less than impressive.
The NASCAR media, such as it is these days, peppered the two, in separate interview sessions with questions about their romance, in a bizarre, painful, shameless display.
Patrick, to her credit, took it all in stride, even style. Maybe she's simply bemused by the inanity.
Maybe, ever the sharp marketer, she is simply mulling over all the potential marketing synergies here....
One legitimate question, perhaps, is the Ford-Chevy angle.
Stenhouse has much more to lose in this deal than Patrick.
Ford's Stenhouse, just 25 but clearly a good, aggressive driver, is now filling Kenseth's shoes in the Roush-Ford camp; Kenseth, the 2003 tour champion and a frequent title contender, has had the most impressive car and team at Daytona and Talladega the past two years. Stenhouse obviously has a lot to handle this season out on the track, and distractions are not needed.
Chevy's Patrick, who turns 31 next month, on the other hand has yet to show much talent as a stock car driver, and she is not really expected to add much to the NASCAR-Chevrolet operation except marketing appeal and yes sex appeal. Distractions like this might even enhance her PR rep...while real Chevy heavyweights like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and others carry the real fight to Ford and Toyota.
If Patrick and this romance can take the Stenhouse team out of the picture, then it's a net plus for Chevy, a net loss for Ford.
And don't think drivers and team won't work every angle they can in this sport to gain an advantage.
Wonder what ol' Buck Baker, early 1957 here, with one of those Black Widow Chevrolets, would think about this sport today? (Photo: Chevrolet)
Patrick's general reaction: "I'm not going to go into details about my private life all the time. I understand there's a curiosity for it.
"To be honest, it's my life. I have always done everything to my comfort-zone level. Once it starts to go beyond that, I just stop.
"Whether it's a photo shoot, talking about my life... these are things where I draw the line by instinct.
"I don't think there's anything too serious talked about today. But I'm sure there will come a day where you ask a question that I don't want to answer, and I'll tell you I'm not going to answer it.
"But I'm just relaxed, I feel happy, I'm just enjoying my life. And it makes me smile to talk about him."
Rivals in the NASCAR garage were not a bit surprised when Patrick and Stenhouse made their relationship public. Joey Logano said 'Ray Charles could have seen it.'
Patrick seems to be having fun with all this; Stenhouse, maybe not so much.
Did Patrick sense what her rival drivers were seeing?
"We've been friends for a long time," Patrick says of Stenhouse. "I've always gotten along with him. I guess that is what they observed. They saw something we didn't know about....
"I haven't been asked that many questions about it. Poor Ricky has been asked a lot of questions. But I haven't gotten too many. But I'm happy to answer them. I'm happy to talk about it. It's fine with me."
Hmmmm, how is Stenhouse dealing with this, does Patrick sense?
"Seems like he's doing pretty well," Patrick says. "A little while back he was talking about not wanting (the publicity). Doesn't like people looking at him, staring at him.
"I'm like 'You better get used to that, because there's going to be a lot of people looking at you.'
"He said 'No, they're not; they're going to be looking at you.'
"I said 'They're going to be looking at you as well.'"
Can Chevrolet's Go-Daddy girl find happiness with Ford's new up-and-comer Ricky Stenhouse? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It gets worse. The press pounded for more details: When, what, where...
"The friendship is the 'bud,'" she says. "Beyond that, I think it was just talking a little bit more often, and then deciding to spend time together... and that goes on from there."
First date? (We're not making this up.)
"I don't know if you could really say," she replied. "I've spent so much time with him...
"Whether I have dinner with him or do appearances or things like that, so I think it's pretty tough to put a 'first date' on anything."
No anniversary? (Who are these reporters?)
"There was one point that I asked him to ask me out on a date...because it's just like you go do something," she said. "'Are you going to ask me on a date?'
"When was that? It wasn't that long ago. I can't remember what the date was."
Oh, and anything special for Valentine's Day?
"Luckily my bags came in," she replied. "My flight was very delayed out of Chicago, so I caught another flight. My Valentine's Day present is in that bag. In fact, there's like a whole bag dedicated to Valentine's Day.
"So what are we doing? I'm going to bet I'm cooking, because I cook and he does not cook."
Ricky Stenhouse, making the big step up from Nationwide to Cup....may want to ask Joey Logano about some things (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This being stock car racing, rivals aren't going to ignore this situation. Jimmie Johnson, for example, said it's going to be 'fun' to follow this romance when the two get out on the track. When Patrick gets upset on the track, he notes, she's not afraid to show it. Stenhouse, on the other hand, is more studious about things...but he drives sideways loose.
Soooo, if Stenhouse happens to get loose and into Patrick's car....
"He better have a really good 'I'm sorry,'" Patrick says with a laugh.
Danica Patrick knows what it's like to be in the eye of the media hurricane. Ricky Stenhouse is about to learn.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Stenhouse doesn't really seem all that comfortable with this situation.
It's going to be tough enough trying to fill the spot Kenseth left.
To be fair, Stenhouse isn't stepping into the same team that Kenseth raced for; Roush has moved many of those guys over to Carl Edwards' team.
Still, Stenhouse is carrying a lot more freight this season, with his move up to Cup.
No, he insists, life hasn't really changed since this thing became so public.
"Not many people notice me out there," Stenhouse says. "It has been fine.
"I have been spending most of my time in the shop. I don't go out a ton.
"Everything has been good. Everything is great."
Uh, we'll revisit things in a few weeks. Stenhouse, remember, only has five Cup starts under his belt...and the world of Cup racing is a heckava lot tougher than Nationwide.
So, a Valentine's Day gift? "I got her some fancy playing cards. She likes to play cards a lot. I have to get better. I bought some cards so I could practice."
First date? "We never really had like a first date. She kind of told me to ask her out, so I asked her out, and we went to dinner. I should probably remember where we went but I can't."
How is this going to play out out on the track?
"For everybody to assume it is going to make me race any different is wrong," Stenhouse says.
"I am respectful to everyone on the track.
"I don't feel if somebody crashes her I am going to go crash them because of it.
"I can't get caught up in any of that.
"You are probably going to give her a break, but it is nothing other than a teammate."
Danica Patrick, though she hasn't done much out on the track, has been heavily promoted and marketed by NASCAR, and she's taken it all very well. So how will rookie Ricky Stenhouse fare in this hot glare of the limelight? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Then there is the whole journalistic issue here. "People question whether you all should report on it or not," Stenhouse says rhetorically. "Obviously it is a big story.
"I know it is a big story and people have been waiting to ask about it.
"It isn't my most important story. I am here to race.
"But it is something you are going to have to deal with and just move on.
"Once the season gets going, we can talk about how great the racing is...and hopefully it can take a back seat."
Stenhouse says Patrick has been helping him with the nuances of playing in such a public eye. "We have talked about it... she has experienced a lot of it," Stenhouse says.
And Stenhouse is now suddenly in the hot spotlight too.
"You all don't get to me, and it doesn't bother me what you say," Stenhouse insists of the media here. "I don't read articles, so it doesn't really bother me."
"I have learned in my career that anytime you are happy off the track it tends to show up on the track," he says. "That is one good thing that we have going. We are both happy, we are focused on racing and having fun.
"I have never had someone 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."
A year ago, good times flying under the radar (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)