DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Danica Patrick slid into her chair at NASCAR media day Thursday and promptly informed her audience it would be race questions only.
Yeah, right. The ensuing 20-plus minutes consisted mostly of questions about her relationship with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Patrick dutifully answered them all. She and Stenhouse better get used to this, at least in the early going.
Patrick and Stenhouse confirmed in January they are dating, and the duo will be competing against each other this year for Sprint Cup rookie of the year.
"Initially, it was a little bit of a mental hurdle of like, 'We compete against each other,' " Patrick said of the relationship, which she likened to Romeo and Juliet. "It's like the Capulets and Montagues with (me in) Chevy and (him in) Ford, this just doesn't work. But you can't tell your heart who to like or not like. And so in the end, it ended up being something that I just didn't think was a big deal at all."
The two spent the last two seasons racing in the Nationwide Series and Patrick leaned on Stenhouse, the two-time Nationwide champion, for friendship and advice after her move to NASCAR. She said the relationship grew deeper, and they went public after she filed for divorce in early January from her husband, Paul Hospenthal. She and Hospenthal announced in November they were splitting up after seven years of marriage.
The 30-year-old Patrick rarely talked about her personal life while married to Hospenthal, but she was open Thursday about the 25-year-old Stenhouse.
"I'm just relaxed," Patrick said. "I feel happy. I feel like I am enjoying my life. It makes me smile to talk about him. I feel like I'm on 'The Bachelorette.'"
Stenhouse was equally as open, saying "she's hot!" when asked what attracted him to Patrick before adding "she loves to cook, and I love to eat." He admitted he'd never heard of the Capulets and Montagues, and refused to say who he would push on the last lap of a race at Daytona if Patrick was battling for the win with one of his Roush Fenway Racing teammates.
"I'm going three-wide," he smiled. "There's enough room at Daytona."
Although the two did not publicly interact Thursday, they are clearly content with their relationship. And because Patrick, who leads all celebrities with 12 Super Bowl ads, is used to being under the media spotlight Stenhouse said he can lean on his girlfriend for guidance as he finds himself suddenly scrutinized.
"I'm fine. The headlines don't say anything about me," he said. "I'm taking this seriously. But if I win a race, it might be 'Danica's boyfriend won a race.'"
The relationship is fodder for endless jokes and razzing from fellow competitors, and most were eager to dive into the topic Thursday.
"Pat on the back for him," said Ty Dillon.
"We can come up with plenty of jokes and how humorous it could be on the track and what each of them are thinking — we'll all be watching with great curiosity, for sure," said Jimmie Johnson.
But if the two have an incident on the track? "That would be one heck of a show," Johnson said. "I'm sure ratings would go up quite a bit. You never know. Danica has shown she can get quite upset at times, so there could be something going on."
Patrick was ready for all the ribbing, and even joked about what would happen if Stenhouse wrecked her on the track.
"He better have a really good, 'I'm sorry,'" Patrick said with a wink.
The duo is moving forward with their relationship, with Patrick saying she planned to cook for Stenhouse on Valentine's Day and she packed an entire suitcase full of gifts for her boyfriend (he got her "fancy playing cards" he said). She also told reporters how after so many months of hanging out with Stenhouse, she had to push him to ask her out on an official date — an account Stenhouse confirmed before sheepishly admitting he couldn't remember what restaurant they went to for the date.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski cautioned that things could get sticky with the happy couple.
"It's difficult because there's that part of you that thinks, 'Ah, this is a little hokie. Can we just focus on the on-track part?'" he said. "But you have to understand that as a race car driver, you make life decisions that put you in a position of danger all the time, 24-7, and that inherently makes you a unique person and the decisions you make in your mental process to get there unique. And whatever outside influences you have are going to affect how you perform.
"So it makes it a story because there's no way for it not to affect their performance. It ties back in. I think it's not really much of a story that their dating as it is as much of a story if they were to break up. That would be incredible to watch, to be quite honest with you. There's so many different ways that could go. I mean, imagine if they were to break up and then wreck each other for like the next six races because they were mad?"
Stenhouse dismissed Keselowski's take, "coming from a guy who has never had a girlfriend?"
Johnson had a recommendation: Patrick and Stenhouse need to keep their relationship from spilling onto the track.
"If it does, it's going to impact their lifestyle and their job," Johnson said. "We're paid to go on the racetrack and race. So if they're handling things differently on the track because of their personal relationship, it's going to affect their jobs; their owners aren't going to be happy or their sponsors."
Follow Jenna Fryer online: https://twitter.com/JennaFryer and http://racing.ap.org