LAS VEGAS — The USA Today headline about a NASCAR exhibition race said it all.
“Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, boyfriend crash at Daytona,” the headline declared last month. Who’s the “boyfriend”? Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse is a second-year driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series after an accomplished stint in its lower-tier Nationwide Series, where he earned consecutive championships in 2011-12.
But as Stenhouse readily admits, he’s known mainly for dating Patrick, who’s one of the nation’s most recognized sports figures and is also in her sophomore year in the Cup series.
Patrick drives the publicity machine, though, not Stenhouse. Her 1.03 million Twitter followers dwarf Stenhouse’s 132,000. She has earned millions for years ($15 million last year, according to Forbes) mainly from endorsements, often appearing in racy TV commercials for her race sponsor GoDaddy.
He’s not complaining, even though it has been an awkward transition for someone hardly known outside the NASCAR garage.
Stenhouse hopes to change all that by winning his first Cup race, and he gets his next chance Sunday when the series returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the third stop in the 36-race season.
“Last year, obviously [I was] known as her boyfriend, we didn’t have a great year, not much to talk about” in terms of his performance, Stenhouse said. “Winning will hopefully take care of that.
“One thing I want to do is get reestablished as somebody who wins and runs up front,” said Stenhouse, who drives the No. 17 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.
The 26-year-old Stenhouse (Patrick turns 32 this month) finished a mediocre 19th in the Cup standings last year with only three top-10 finishes. Even so, he won the series’ rookie-of-the-year award. Patrick struggled even more in her rookie year, finishing 27th in points with one top-10 finish.
Many expect more from Stenhouse this season, not only because he now has a year’s experience in the Cup series but because he has been reunited with Mike Kelley, the crew chief who guided the driver to his Nationwide Series titles.
Stenhouse is off to a so-so start, finishing seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 18th last weekend at Phoenix. But because of new NASCAR rules this year, even one victory would almost guarantee that Stenhouse would qualify for NASCAR’s 16-driver Chase for the Cup title playoff in the fall.
“Certainly my goal for him this year is to make the Chase and to be a factor in the championship,” said team co-owner Jack Roush. “He’s skilled and he’s able and he’s paid his dues.” But Roush added that Stenhouse has “got to be cognizant of the things that he learned in the past year.”
A win would not only help Stenhouse step out of Patrick’s limelight, but also it would help maintain the sponsorship crucial to financing his car. “You get a lot more TV time when you run a lot better,” he said.
Stenhouse grew up in Olive Branch, Miss., where his father, a former sprint car racer, still has a business building racing engines. “He worked 16 hours a day from the time I can remember,” said Stenhouse, who often helped his dad in the shop. “I learned a lot from it, not only on the racing side of things but really in everyday life and how you treat people.”
Sprint cars are powerful, lightweight, open-wheel racers mostly for dirt tracks, and that’s where Stenhouse cut his teeth in racing. For a time, Stenhouse drove a sprint car for Stewart, the three-time Cup champion, before shifting to stock car racing with Roush Fenway.
Those close to Stenhouse describe him as a relaxed, confident driver and not one to brood over problems. “He’s a very quiet, confident, friendly guy,” Patrick said. “I found him to be very secure with who he is.”
But outside a race car Stenhouse can struggle to make up his mind, which drives Patrick to distraction. Last week, he couldn’t decide which $23 cap to buy at a golf store in Scottsdale, Ariz., even stepping out of the cashier’s line at the last moment to switch caps again. “He just cannot pull the trigger on buying stuff; it’s very funny,” she said.
Stenhouse is a devout Christian who regularly attends a Baptist church when he’s home in Mooresville, N.C., or the chapel service held at racetracks before every Cup race.
Does Patrick attend church with him? “Yes, sir, she goes, she enjoys it,” he said. “It’s part of the way I grew up and it’s taught me a lot of lessons.”
What’s not part of the way Stenhouse grew up is being center stage with Patrick in public, but he’s trying to adapt.
“She’s obviously been on red carpets and things like that all the time,” he said. “[It] makes me a little uncomfortable because I’m not used to that stuff.”
Perhaps the most celebrated example of Stenhouse’s uneasiness came last December at NASCAR’s awards banquet in Las Vegas, where comedian Jay Mohr was the emcee.
Mohr looked at the table where Patrick and Stenhouse were seated and joked, “Danica, I hope you’re not too uncomfortable tonight, I know you’re not used to being this close to the front.” The audience gasped while the TV camera captured Stenhouse nearly stone-faced. Patrick wasn’t laughing, either.
Stenhouse said the moment was misinterpreted because he and Patrick were simply reluctant to laugh at the other’s expense.
“Obviously, I saw the video of it and it definitely didn’t look like we were enjoying it,” Stenhouse said. “We were fine with it. We both kind of got caught up in the middle of really not knowing what to do.”
But there’s no confusion about Stenhouse’s expectations of being a regular contender to win in the Cup series this year, and Patrick naturally is his biggest supporter.
Stenhouse “is confident and knows what he’s doing,” she said. “He knows how to drive.”