CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — During the long rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway, Danica Patrick encouraged the broadcast team to interview her boyfriend.
The Fox Sports team had requested a few moments of time on live television with Patrick, and she wanted Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to receive the same attention. He got some air time after the commercial break, and then in the closing laps of Sunday night's race when he grabbed a career-best second-place finish.
Although he's a two-time Nationwide Series champion and the more accomplished driver in NASCAR's most prolific romance, Stenhouse is largely recognized outside of racing circles for being Patrick's boyfriend. More finishes like Sunday's could help him change the conversation.
"It helps our confidence for sure," said Stenhouse, who beat Patrick for Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year last season with a mediocre showing. He was 19th in the final standings with three top-10 finishes and 36 laps led.
But an offseason change reunited him with Mike Kelley, the crew chief he teamed with for the two Nationwide titles, and the performance has already picked up. Stenhouse was seventh in the season-opening Daytona 500, was in position to challenge for the win at Bristol and goes into this weekend's race at Fontana, Calif., ranked 10th in the standings.
"It's been nice working with Mike and the guys again. We're having a lot of fun," he said. "We're just slowly working and getting better and better." Stenhouse didn't have a shot Sunday to challenge Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards for the victory. But when the caution lights mysteriously stopped the action right before the white flag lap, he began to envision the move he'd make to go for his first career Cup win.
"I was thinking about doing whatever I could to win," he said. "I was thinking that I would use the bumper if the opportunity was there. If you get the win, you're in the Chase and you can let the rest take care of itself later."
Alas, the sky opened and rain prevented the race from resuming, so Edwards got the win under yellow without a final challenge from his teammate. But team owner Jack Roush said he expected Stenhouse to give everything in pursuit of the victory.
"When it comes time to really charge for the checkered flag, there's no team orders, there's no rules," Roush said. "I expect them to race one another as they expect to be raced not only with one another but with everybody in the garage. I expect Ricky is as fierce a competitor as there is out there, and if his car has got the speed and he can get to the car in front of him, particularly on a short track, you'd bump-and-run and take the prize if you could get it. I'd be surprised if he didn't have that in his mind."
Edwards said he expected the same from Stenhouse, who has eight career Nationwide wins but hasn't been to Victory Lane in NASCAR since 2012. "I was fully prepared for smashing into each other, bouncing off the walls, wrecking each other for the win," Edwards said.