Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Patrick opens up on love, her races

NASCAR's glam competitor knows where she struggles

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Danica Patrick traditionally winds down each season with a series of interviews designed to reflect on the past year and look ahead at what's next for one of the most recognizable figures in sports.

She deliberately left something out of her 2012 exit interviews, waiting until two days after the season ended to announce she was divorcing her husband after seven years of marriage. So as she relaxed earlier this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway in a motorhome parked near the bus of boyfriend and fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., it was imperative to get the important stuff out of the way first: Was she planning any bombshell announcements in the next week? Pregnant? Engaged?

"Pregnant? No, I can promise you not," Patrick laughed. "The other one? I don't know. I'm the girl. It could be never, it could be tomorrow."

Patrick, who disclosed two months after announcing her divorce that she and Stenhouse were dating, is open to getting married again.

"I would, absolutely. I love love," she told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview. "But if I'm getting married is not a question I know the answer to. Should we go get Ricky and you can ask him yourself?"

This is the new Danica Patrick, who for most of her career has been viewed as guarded, even cold. She was light and playful as the sometimes scantily clad GoDaddy Girl in all those Super Bowl commercials, but she was strictly business at the racetrack, where she has struggled to put together results to match the hype.

She spent five seasons driving for Michael Andretti in the IndyCar Series, and the team owner saw a seismic shift in Patrick as her superstar status exploded far beyond the small world of open-wheel racing.

She began dabbling in NASCAR in 2010 and left Andretti behind when she made the full-time jump to stock cars in 2012. He has followed her from afar since and thought he recognized Danica from simpler times when he saw her become the first woman in history to win the pole at the Daytona 500 earlier this year.

If Patrick needed to become more grounded, her two years in NASCAR have given her that, cowboy boots and all.

Stenhouse, a Mississippi native who'd never visited New York City before he began dating Patrick, has worked a total transformation on the one-time diva in the designer heels. Asked how Stenhouse has changed her, she flips rapidly through her phone showing pictures of the couple at various country music concerts. Her taste in music has changed so much that Patrick will join Trace Adkins as co-host of the American Country Awards on Dec. 10.

Patrick finished 27th in the final Sprint Cup standings and lost the rookie battle to Stenhouse, who finished 19th. Although she completed 94.2 per cent of the laps, she finished on the lead lap in only 12 of 36 races.

It wasn't the season anyone hoped for, particularly after Patrick became the first woman to lead laps in the Daytona 500. She wound up eighth when she failed to anticipate Jimmie Johnson's race-winning move and couldn't stop Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s late-race jockeying for position. It was her only top-10 finish of the year.

Although she is brutally hard on herself, team co-owner Tony Stewart believes Patrick did just fine this season. A broken right leg in August kept Stewart out of the car the final four months of the season and the three-time champion was able to evaluate Patrick firsthand.

"I see room for improvement, but I see a lot of potential," he said, praising her attention to details, preparation, focus and communication with her crew.

Patrick had just 10 Sprint Cup starts before this season and 58 starts in the Nationwide Series, where the cars are heavier but have less horsepower.

Stewart has seen Patrick lacks confidence at the start of each race and often needs to wait for her GoDaddy team to make the needed adjustments to her No. 10 Chevrolet to get comfortable.

Patrick knows exactly where and when she struggles, and blames inexperience.

"When you need to get to the very limit of the car, especially when things are challenging, is when it shows up. Like first laps of practice, or qualifying, restarts, start of a green-flag run -- all the things when you are testing the limit and having to be confident and know the limits. I don't know them yet, and I'm not confident," she said. "When the car is right, it's all good; I will gain spots."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2013 B16

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