NASCAR says having Sprint Cup drivers in romantic relationship while battling for rookie-of-year honors presents 'zero concerns.'
Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confirmed Friday they are in a romantic relationship while preparing to race each other at 200 mph every week for Sprint Cup rookie of the year.
Patrick, 30, drives for Stewart-Haas Racing, owned by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. Spokesman Mike Arning told USA TODAY Sports the team doesn't comment on the personal lives of its personnel.
Patrick didn't have any further comment after confirming it in an Associated Press story Friday morning.
"This relationship in no way violates any rules or regulations of the sport, so we have zero concerns, particularly since we're talking about two fiercely competitive individuals who both want to win NASCAR races and be the best at what they do," NASCAR spokesman David Higdon told USA TODAY Sports. He indicated NASCAR had recently learned of the coupling.
Patrick tweeted Friday morning at 10 a.m.: "Thanks everyone for all of your nice messages, and the bump drafting jokes are cracking me up! Let the fun begin."
Her boyfriend, 25, retweeted her shortly after.
Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark told USA TODAY Sports the team that fields Stenhouse's No. 17 Ford was fine with the arrangement, provided it didn't impact the driver's performance.
"Our policy at Roush Fenway Racing has always been to let our drivers address their own personal lives," Newmark said. "We believe we have an extremely talented group of drivers who represent our partners in a first-class manner, and each of them is a fierce competitor on the track. Of course, we recognize that they have lives beyond the track, and we wish them the best in any of their personal relationships, but don't feel that it is our role as a race team to discuss those relationships. That said, we are always happy if our drivers are engaged in relationships that are meaningful to them, and will continue to support them, as any member of the Roush Fenway family, in whatever manner they request."
Newmark said the team didn't think it would have an impact on the results of Stenhouse, who also is moving into NASCAR's premier series after winning two consecutive Nationwide championships.
"Again without going into anyone's personal life, I think anyone that knows any of our drivers personally knows that each has a racer's mentality," Newmark said. "That they would wreck their own mother, sibling or significant other, to win a race. Our success as a multi-car organization stems from the fact that each of our drivers wants every spot on the racetrack, and one thing that we've seen is that they are always willing to do what it takes to get it.
"Our drivers want to win. They want to win races and championships and we have no worries about how hard any of them will race any other competitor on that track to reach those goals. Anyone that thinks that may be an issue for any of our drivers on the track doesn't know our drivers very well."
Elizabeth Driscoll, a spokesman for Go Daddy, which has sponsored Patrick for several years in IndyCar and NASCAR, said ''we wish the best for Danica,'' but added the company doesn't comment on the personal lives of its spokespeople.
Patrick remains one of the most recognizable drivers in auto racing, even if wins have been hard to come by. Go Daddy said in November Patrick will again appear in the website domain provider's commercials during the Super Bowl next month.
"I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard," Patrick said during an exclusive telephone interview with AP.
"I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this," Patrick laughed, sounding almost giddy as she said the two-time Nationwide champion's middle name is Lynn and he prefers she use his first name.
Rumblings about the possible pairing had been going on for a while, and ramped up during the Sprint Media Tour in and around the Charlotte, N.C.-area this week. Both drivers dodged questions about their relationship -- Patrick on Monday and Stenhouse on Thursday.
"We are dating, and I know there's been a bit of a runaround this week at the media days and poor Ricky got grilled (with questions)," Patrick said. "It was out of respect to NASCAR, to all the manufacturers, the new cars, the teams, the sponsors, just to allow the news of the day to be about racing and not let anything interfere with that. So, it's Friday now, so that's why we waited until the end of the week to be up front about each other."
Stenhouse confirmed the relationship.
"Yes we are dating," he said. "I don't normally say too much about my private life, always been focused on the track. I didn't want to confirm at media day so that we could keep the focus on the season, the Gen-6 (car), my sponsors and team. That's what it's all about for me."
Patrick announced in November she and husband Paul Hospenthal were divorcing after seven years, and said in the Jan. 3 filing that her marriage to the 47-year-old Hospenthal was "irretrievably broken."
Patrick and Stenhouse have made no secret about being close friends, having hit it off on NASCAR's Nationwide circuit when both were rookies in 2010.
At rookie driver meetings, Stenhouse often offered his seat to Patrick along with tidbits of driving advice, and Patrick convinced Stenhouse that he should cut his infamous "mullet."
"We were at an autograph session in Chicago," Stenhouse told USA TODAY Sports in a November 2011 story. "And she (asked), 'Man, what's it going to take for you to cut your hair?' "
Stenhouse said he didn't want to ruin a run of good fortune under new crew chief Mike Kelley after crashing in five of his first 12 races. So Patrick took the suggestion to Kelley by writing on an autograph card, "Please let Ricky cut the mullet. He's much hotter with a nice, clean cut." Stenhouse chopped the long locks within a few days.
They shared a hug on ESPN after Stenhouse completed a postrace interview at Kentucky Speedway last September.
"We got along from the very beginning," Patrick told ESPNW.com for a story last July. "He's really respectful. He wants to help me. He makes me trust him. There's no bad intent. He's just protective and nice, a really good friend."
While Patrick's policy has always been not to talk about her personal life, Patrick said she made an exception this time to end the gossip and so the two could be open about their relationship.
"I think that moving forward into the year, it's a matter of do you say anything at all, or do you just carry on?" she told AP. "As opposed to speculation and people making up their own stories or talking amongst themselves or us feeling uncomfortable walking into each other's (motorhomes) moving forward, or around our teams or anything, it's just easier to be up front and get it out of the way than to have any kind of awkward speculation."
The subject will be hard for the two to avoid as they compete against each other this season for rookie of the year honors in NASCAR's top Sprint Cup Series. Both are moving up from the second-tier Nationwide Series at the same time.
Patrick said she won't race Stenhouse any differently.
"Obviously, we've been racing together for a couple years now, him and I have always gotten along, we've always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there's never been an issue out there," she said. "I always say I'll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don't anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track."
Stenhouse echoed that attitude.
"It won't affect how I race on the track. I want to go out and win, I race everyone hard," he said.
Patrick rocketed to worldwide prominence when she challenged for the Indy 500 win as a rookie, becoming the first woman to lead laps while finishing fourth in 2005. She finished a career-best third in 2009. She began dabbling in NASCAR in 2010 in the Nationwide Series, and moved full-time last year leaving IndyCar and the 500 behind.
Patrick has struggled in stock cars, notching just seven top-10s in 58 Nationwide races since 2010. Still, she was voted by fans the series' most popular driver last year and finished 10th in the standings with JR Motorsports, the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In Cup, Stewart handpicked 10 of the hardest tracks for Patrick last season to force her to learn on the fly in preparation for this year. Her average finish in the 10 races was 28th and her best finish was 17th in her season finale at Phoenix International Raceway.
Stenhouse has won eight races over the last two seasons to become the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win consecutive Nationwide titles. He was promoted this year by Roush Fenway to the Cup Series to replace 2003 NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth.