Ricky Stenhouse Jr. climbs out of his car on pit road after his qualifying run for the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 4:10 pm
AROUND THE TRACK: Danica's boyfriend in her shadow
By JENNA FRYERAP Auto Racing Writer
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., of course, is far more than Danica Patrick's boyfriend. He is the two-time Nationwide Series champion, and he is making the move to the big league this season as the replacement driver at Roush-Fenway Racing for two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.
Casual fans probably don't know much about Stenhouse's accomplishments, which have been overlooked since he and Patrick announced in January they were dating. The couple will compete against each other for Sprint Cup rookie of the year this season.
Stenhouse, so far, has been OK with the attention.
"Obviously, it is a big story," he said. "It just isn't my most important story. I am here to race. 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."
So just who is Danica's new man?
The 25-year-old Mississippi native, often seen wearing a cowboy hat and a huge silver belt buckle celebrating one of his Nationwide titles, became the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win back-to-back Nationwide titles.
In the season finale at Homestead last season, when his spotter was imploring him to lay back and race conservatively to wrap up the title, Stenhouse keyed the mic so he couldn't hear him anymore. He races hard and doesn't hold back on the track, something Tony Stewart learned while fielding sprint cars for a young Stenhouse.
Stewart, who turns wrecked chassis into artificial reefs, said: "I've got a lot of race car frames in my lake that have his name on them on cars that he crashed."
"The hardest part was pulling the reins back in on him," Stewart said. "There were races he'd have half a lap lead on second place and crash the car with 10 laps to go. That was the hard stuff to get him to understand, is you don't have to go 100 percent every lap. That's stuff that he's learned in the last couple years in Nationwide, is how to take his aggressive style and at the same time be smart about it, make it work to his advantage."
Stenhouse got a promotion this year from RFR to replace Kenseth, the 2004 Cup champion who left for Joe Gibbs Racing. He will drive the No. 17 Ford and his move up coincides with Patrick's, who will also be racing full-time in Cup this year.
The two became close over the last two years, first in Nationwide rookie meetings together, then as Patrick leaned on Stenhouse when she went full-time last year in the series. When the relationship became romantic, Patrick worried how Stenhouse would handle the attention when they went public.
"I was a little concerned in the beginning because he doesn't like people looking at him, and I was like, `You are going to have to get over that real fast,'" Patrick said. "But he seems like he's having fun, and it doesn't bother him, and I feel like it's given him an opportunity to be himself more. I don't know why that is. He just seems to be looser, doesn't mind talking to people or doing things, whether it's backflips or jokes or whatever."
Patrick, a star already used to the spotlight, had conversations with Stenhouse on what to expect and how to handle the newfound fame.
"We have talked about it. She can definitely help out with that because she has experienced a lot of it," Stenhouse said, adding the media "don't get to me and it doesn't bother me what you say. I don't read articles so it doesn't really bother me. She knows I spend my time at the shop and focused on our racing."
All eyes are on Patrick this week after she won the pole for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, but Stenhouse fully expects to get his due this season when the discussion turns to his job as driver of the No. 17 Ford.
"I think it is a cool opportunity for me to come into Matt's number with a totally different team and because of the story people don't realize it is a different crew chief, team and over the wall guys," he said. "The only thing the same is the number and the sponsors. I think we have accomplished a lot in NASCAR in the Nationwide series and to think that is going to translate right over to the Sprint Cup Series the first year is a little difficult.
"But I think we are capable of doing that though and that is the plan. At the end of the season we want to be talking about our performance."
ROOKIE AGAIN: Action star Travis Pastrana is the newest addition to the Roush-Fenway Racing lineup, and he'll attempt to run his first Nationwide Series race at Daytona this weekend.
But Pastrana is no stranger to the speedway.
"My first Supercross win was on the infield here at Daytona," he said. "Daytona Speedweeks and Daytona Bikeweek have been two of my favorite events for as long as I can remember. Having the opportunity to race here in a NASCAR event is truly a dream come true."
Pastrana will drive the No. 60 Ford for RFR. Because he has nine previous starts in the Nationwide Series, he is not eligible for the rookie of the year program, but said he feels like one this season and "it's a scary feeling."
"As I come into NASCAR with success in other forms of racing and enter this year as a full-time driver with a top team, everyone's expectations are pretty high," he said. "I've always liked to be thrown into the deep end."
Pastrana will be teammates with Trevor Bayne, winner of the 2011 Daytona 500.
"Hopefully, I can earn Trevor's trust because he's the man here and I couldn't ask for a better teammate for my first race here," he said. "I'm lined up with great equipment and an amazing crew. I'm surrounded by a lot of knowledge and I'm ready to learn. This season is going to be an epic ride. Game on."
RECOVERING: Antron Brown flew home to Indiana for a doctor visit this week following his frightening accident at the NHRA Winternationals in California.
The reigning NHRA world champion went for a wild ride after his engine exploded at 300 mph, sending his dragster veering sharply to the left before flipping onto its side. It backed into a concrete guardwall before sliding past the dragstrip pavement and into a sand trap.
Brown escaped injury in part because of the enclosed safety canopy developed by his Don Schumacher Racing team.
"The canopy's windshield is five-eighths-of-an-inch thick. Nothing got to me. When I hit the sand trap, I saw stones flying all over the place, but I didn't get dusty, nothing got into me. It really, really did its job," he said. "I remember turning the fresh air on because the (nitro) fumes were getting to me. Thank God that canopy is on our car because when we hit that sand trap it really kept everything away from me and the fire away from me."
Brown stopped by the DSR shop while home to thank the fabricators who built his dragster. Now he's headed back out to compete this weekend at Phoenix, where he'll rejoin the rest of his team.
"Everything is ready to rock. I'm ready to get to Phoenix and get back on that horse," he said. "That's what it's all about."
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