DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — 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.
Patrick, 30, rarely talked about her personal life while married to Hospenthal, but she was open Thursday about Stenhouse, 25.
‘‘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.’ ’’
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.
Johnson said Patrick and Stenhouse have to keep their relationship from spilling onto the track.
‘‘If it does, it’s going to impact their lifestyle and their job,’’ Johnson said.