DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Who would have thought that, on Valentine’s Day, romance would dominate any talk about racing at Daytona International Speedway?
But any discussion about NASCAR’s next-generation car (the Gen-6) or its next-generation champion (Brad Keselowski) took a back seat to the sizzling topic du jour: the on- and off-track relationship between Sprint Cup drivers Danica Patrick, 30, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 25, who appear poised to engage in one of the most interesting Rookie of the Year competitions since Matt Kenseth beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the honor in 2000.
Patrick and Stenhouse have become NASCAR’s royal couple, and Daytona was abuzz with their whirlwind romance.
They openly discussed their relationship in separate interviews during Media Day for the Feb. 24 Daytona 500, fielding questions about the genesis of their romance (it blossomed from a fast friendship), whether they intended to share a motorcoach at the track (they don’t), and how they would handle racing against each other on the track.
“That’s obviously a big question in a lot of people’s minds, fans’ minds,’’ Patrick said. “I had a friend say, ‘I’m excited to see how you guys race against each other when you’re out there.’ That’s someone [who] isn’t even into racing, curious to see how that will go.
“We’ve been racing against each other as long as we’ve known each other. So, you know, there are times you’re out there on the track and you don’t even see each other, you’re not even next to each other.
“Every time we have been, it’s about respect and neither of us puts up a big fight.’’
Stenhouse does not foresee his relationship with Patrick having an impact on his approach to racing against her, or anyone else for that matter.
“I think for everybody to assume it is going to make me race any different is wrong,’’ Stenhouse said. “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 racetrack.
“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.’’
Race fans seemed stunned last month when Patrick acknowledged that she was dating Stenhouse, the 2012 Nationwide Series champion. This came after Patrick announced Nov. 20 that she was ending her seven-year marriage to Paul Hospenthal. She filed for divorce Jan. 3.
But it was evident to the competitors in the garage area that a chemistry existed between Patrick and Stenhouse, who earned a turn behind the wheel of the No. 17 Ford fielded by Roush Fenway Racing.
So what caused their on-track relationship as Nationwide competitors to blossom into an off-track romance?
“I mean, the friendship is the bud, for sure,’’ Patrick said. “But beyond that, I think it was like, you know, just talking a little bit more often and then deciding to spend time together, and that goes on from there.’’
A native of Olive Branch, Miss., Stenhouse is unabashedly country. Patrick, of Roscoe, Ill., is decidedly rock and roll. He was a Ford driver, she a Chevy driver. Even though they were split on their musical tastes and the manufacturer and make of their racecars, opposites seemed to attract.
But Patrick did have second thoughts about getting romantically involved with a fellow driver.
“Sure,’’ she said. “I think, initially, it was a little bit of a mental hurdle of like, ‘We compete against each other.’ I said it’s like the Capulets and Montagues with Chevy and Ford. This just doesn’t work.
“But you can’t tell your heart who to like or not like. In the end, it ended up being something that I just didn’t think was a big deal at all.’’
While the subject of her divorce was never brought up, Patrick seemed at ease talking about her new boyfriend.
“I’m not going to go into details about my private life all the time,’’ she said. “So 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.
“I’m just relaxed. I feel happy. I feel like I’m just enjoying my life. It makes me smile to talk about him.’’
Said Stenhouse, “Well, we are happy and that is good, right? I feel like what I’ve learned in my career in racing is that any time you are happy off the racetrack, it tends to show up on the racetrack.
“That is one good thing that we have going. We are both happy, we are focused on racing and having fun.’’