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For Patrick, Stenhouse, it's love NASCAR style

DAYTONA BEACH — Danica Patrick showed up at NASCAR's annual media day and, as usual, was surrounded by a large contingent of reporters. But unlike last year, when all the talk was about her first time racing in the Daytona 500, the focus Thursday was on her love life.

Including what she had planned for her first Valentine's Day with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse.

"My flight was very delayed out of Chicago, so I caught another flight," Patrick said. "They (her luggage) were supposed to be in already. They're hopefully going to be in in time, because my Valentine's Day present is in that bag. In fact, there's like a whole bag dedicated to Valentine's Day."

Patrick said that at one point she had serious reservations about dating Stenhouse. But in the end, she went with her heart.

"I think initially there was a little bit of a mental hurdle because we compete against each other," Patrick said. "I said it's like the Capulets and the Montagues, but with Chevy and Ford. But you can't tell your heart who to like or not like. And in the end it ended up being something that I didn't think was a big deal at all."

Actually, based on the number of questions Patrick and Stenhouse received about their relationship, it's a pretty big deal. At least right now.

Patrick, who turns 31 in March, divorced 47-year-old Paul Hospenthal in January. Shortly afterward, she and Stenhouse, 25, announced they were dating. Ultimately, Stenhouse said he didn't have any reservations at all.

"We're happy, so that's good, right?" he said. "I feel like what I've learned throughout my career in racing is anytime you're happy off the racetrack, it tends to show up on the racetrack. That's one good thing we've got going, we're both happy. We're not focused on the relationship, we're focused on racing and we're having fun."

The news may have caught racing fans by surprise, but apparently some drivers sensed there was more than friendship between the two long before it was made public. "Ray Charles seen that one coming," driver Joey Logano said.

Reaction among drivers was mixed. Veteran Mark Martin said it's not a situation he personally would like to be in. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said he's much more interested in how Patrick and Stenhouse will handle competing if they break up.

"It would be incredible to watch. That's what I say," Kese­lowski said. "There's so many ways that could go. Imagine if they were to break up and then wreck each other like the next six races because they were mad. I think that would be way more compelling. But I think it's a story either way."

Stenhouse is a rookie driver taking over Matt Kenseth's ride after Kenseth's move to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Both Stenhouse and Patrick bristle at the notion their relationship will affect their driving.

"I think for everybody to assume that it's going to make me race any different, it's not going to," Stenhouse said. "I'm respectful to my teammates, so therefore I'd be respectful to her. But I'm respectful to everybody on the racetrack. I don't feel like, if somebody crashes her, it's not like I'm going to go crash somebody because of it. I'm out there to do my job. I'm out there to put on the best performance I can for my sponsors, my team and my fans. I can't get caught up in any of that. She's been racing for a long time. She can handle that situation, and I'll handle mine."

Only time will tell.

Antonya English can be reached at english@tampabay.com.

For Patrick, Stenhouse, it's love NASCAR style 02/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 14, 2013 10:15pm]

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