TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a two-time champion of NASCAR’s top developmental series, successful at every rung along the way, with aspirations of helping an owner with whom he shares a long and tumultuous relationship back to full-time relevance.
But he has heard the preface for five years, since he began a romantic relationship with fellow competitor and mainstream icon Danica Patrick.
Leaning against a conference table a few weeks ago, his jaw tightened subtly as a question from a reporter on a teleconference box referenced how he was best known as being “Danica’s boyfriend.” He breathed deeply and delved quickly and fully into the crux of the question and how he felt he and Roush Fenway Racing were on the verge of something.
He proved it Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. And for at least a while, he gets a new label: race winner. That restrictor-plate racing often produces unexpected winners — 11 drivers have claimed their first Cup race win at Talladega — doesn’t matter. Neither, he said, does it matter if he remains best known for his relationship.
Patrick was part of the welcoming party for Stenhouse on Sunday, and it was special, he said. Having wrecked out of the race after being caught in an 18-car maelstrom on lap 169 of a scheduled 188, she greeted him in street clothes in victory lane.
He expected their eventual victory lane photo would one day come with both in fire suits. But that was OK, too.
“Pulling into victory lane and Jack and Danica standing there together …. same height,” Stenhouse said, not able to resist needling boss Jack Roush. “She supports me through anything I need to do. … She’s been so supportive and knows how hard I’ve worked.”
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