DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. can find himself in a tricky spot, regarding racing in addition to relationships, in Sunday's Daytona 500.
Imagine Stenhouse running third on the final lap, and the two cars in front of him are a Roush-Fenway teammate and girlfriend Danica Patrick.
Which car does he team up with and try to push to victory?
"At Daytona, there is enough room for three, so I am going three wide," Stenhouse said tactfully. "That is a good scenario. If we are finishing one-two, then it would be fine, but I think we both have a lot to learn and it is going to be tough for both of us."
The Stenhouse-Patrick romance was the talk of NASCAR when Speedweeks began last week and will only intensify this week after Patrick became the first woman to win a Sprint Cup pole last Sunday for the Daytona 500.
Stenhouse, who is making the jump to full-time Cup racing in the No. 17 Ford vacated by Matt Kenseth, won the last two Nationwide Series championships and was considered the front-runner for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. Patrick, driving the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet after finishing 10th in her one full Nationwide season, may be his biggest rival for top rookie honors.
"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. She has been racing for a long time and can handle that situation and I will handle mine.
"You are probably going to give her a break, but it is nothing other than a teammate."
Patrick, 30, and Stenhouse, 25, developed a friendship when they attended Nationwide rookie meetings in 2010 when he was the rookie of the year in that series.
"It's funny, because basically it will be us in rookie meetings again this year," said Patrick, who filed for divorce from Paul Hospenthal, her husband of seven years, in early January. "Since we're running for Rookie of the Year we have to go to every single track for the rookie meeting. We've been racing against each other as long as we've known each other.
"There are times you're out there on the track, 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 put up a big fight. … As we keep getting better over the year, over the years, you're going to end up having to race each other harder because they're going to be for better spots. But in general, it's going to be just like it always has been. "
Patrick has been in the public eye since she burst onto the scene as the first female to lead laps at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005. She took her marquee value and marketing appeal to NASCAR in 2010. Despite her lack of success in stock-car racing to this point, she was voted the Nationwide Series' Most Popular Driver in 2012 (she was also IndyCar's Most Popular Driver during 2005-10) while Stenhouse had a hard time gaining sponsorship and attention despite winning back-to-back Nationwide titles.
"Yeah, the headlines don't say anything about me," said Stenhouse, who won the Nationwide race at Kansas Speedway last fall and has made five career Sprint Cup starts. "That is cool. If I win a race, and it says Danica's boyfriend wins the race, I don't know how that will work out."
Patrick has done her best preparing Stenhouse for being under the magnifying glass from the moment he arrives at the track until the time he leaves.
"A little while back he was saying … he doesn't like people looking at him, staring at him," she said. " So I'm like, You better get used to that because there's going to be a lot of people looking at you.
"He said, 'No, they're not, they're going to be looking at you.' I said, 'No, they're going to be looking at you as well.' But he's doing good."
The Patrick-Stenhouse relationship has not gone unnoticed by their fellow competitors and teammates.
"I think Danica has two boyfriends," teammate and car owner Tony Stewart joked after Patrick won the Daytona 500 pole last Sunday. "She has Ricky and she has (crew chief) Tony Gibson. They are all but holding hands in the shop when they're there every day together."
To other drivers, it's not such a laughing matter.
After Kevin Harvick won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race Saturday night, he couldn't resist taking a dig at the couple in love.
"How are we going to get Danica and Ricky on the front page tomorrow morning?" Harvick asked at his post-race news conference.
Veteran driver Jeff Burton doesn't think Patrick and Stenhouse will have difficulties balancing their relationship on and off the track or will negatively affect other drivers while they're still a couple.
However, in a sport rife with feuds that escalate into some serious fender bending during races, Burton wondered about a future consequence.
"I think the biggest issue," Burton said, "is what happens if they break up?" "
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