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Stenhouse on his own track

FONTANA, Calif. -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was braced for the onslaught of questions about his love life as he waited for an interview with E! News on the roof of his No. 17 hauler two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway.

After all, this was the entertainment network that makes headlines out of celebrity gossip stories about Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian.

Stenhouse's only claim to that type of celebrity status and gossip column fodder is, well … Danica Patrick.

But a surprising thing happened. Patrick's name came up only once -- or twice.

"When they said we were going to do [the interview] I thought it was going to be all about that," Stenhouse said of his relationship with Patrick. "But shockingly, it wasn't. They actually asked a lot of racing questions. What goes on? What's a crew chief do up here? So I was kind of surprised. It turned out to be a great interview.

"I thought that was kind of cool."

So the actual E! News piece was on the couple, not so much their racing. What did you expect?

But with all the attention focused on who will replace injured Denny Hamlin in the No. 11, Tony Stewart's feud against Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. moving into the points lead, the latest on one of the biggest stories of the NASCAR season has been overlooked.

Stenhouse has left Patrick.

Not literally.

Stenhouse has left his fellow Sprint Cup rookie behind in the point standings and almost every other statistical category.

Heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway he is 12th in points, 62 behind Earnhardt. Patrick is 29th, 112 behind Earnhardt and 50 behind Stenhouse.

So while they may have moved closer off the track, they're growing father apart on it.

Asked by E! News if her struggles have made for some silent dinners, Patrick laughed.

"It's been a little challenging," she said. "I'll say, 'Babe, am I less hot when I'm not good on the track? Does that make me less attractive?' And he's like, 'I'm not with you because you're a race car driver.'"

And Stenhouse, 25, isn't in NASCAR's premier series because of whom he dates. He's first and foremost a race car driver.

Fortunately, that hasn't been overshadowed by his love life, as some suspected it might before the season, when his relationship was the main topic around the garage.

"It's been good," Stenhouse said. "We haven't had the focus off track since Daytona got going."

That doesn't mean Stenhouse shies away from drawing attention to the relationship. During prerace introductions at Bristol he told the crowd, "Hey guys, she's taken."

But Stenhouse obviously hasn't let the relationship become a distraction to his work. He's one of only five drivers to complete all 1,483 laps this season. The others are Earnhardt, second-place Brad Keselowski, fifth-place Greg Biffle and eighth-place Paul Menard.

Patrick, 31, has completed 144 fewer laps.

Stenhouse has a respectable 16.4 average finish, which is better than four-time champion Jeff Gordon, three-time champion Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer -- to name a few.

Patrick's average finish is 26.8, 31.5 since she set history with an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500.

Roush Fenway Racing owner Jack Roush couldn't be happier with Stenhouse's progression since he was named the replacement for Matt Kenseth, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing. He hasn't been concerned about Patrick being a distraction since the news first broke his driver was dating her.

"I looked him in the eye and asked him about that," Roush said. "He assured me some things were more important than others, and that he'd take care of things in the proper order."

RFR president Steve Newmark understands why people might think Stenhouse would be distracted by the TMZ fodder.

"But he is so laser focused on being a championship driver, it was easy to see he wasn't going to be distracted," he said.

If anything, Newmark and Roush have had to temper Stenhouse's expectations. While their driver expected to contend for wins and a title just as he did in winning the past two Nationwide Series titles, they understood the steep learning curve.

Stenhouse understands it better now, too.

"It's not very much fun not competing for wins like we did in the Nationwide Series, but that will come with time," he said.

The learning curve will be even sharper this weekend as Stenhouse and Patrick race at Martinsville Speedway for the first time. For Patrick, it will be another historic moment in that no woman has competed at the half-mile track in a Cup car.

Stenhouse just hopes to avoid what many rookies do on their first trip to the paper clip-shaped track.

"I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything," said Earnhardt, who now claims Martinsville to be one of his best tracks. "I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars … just about everything that could be ran into, I found it."

But Stenhouse has shown the patience and maturity that makes one believe he'll negotiate the track better than most first-timers.

Not since Hamlin finished third in the final standings in 2006 has a rookie been this high in points. Only six of the 25 drivers who finished in the top 25 a year ago were top 10 in their first season. The average position in the final points standings for that group was 16.68.

Reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski finished 25th in points in his first full season.

So at this point, Stenhouse is ahead of the game.

"We're getting better," he said. "If we keep building every week and learn from the mistakes, at some point this year maybe we can compete for a couple of wins."

One day, RFR expects Stenhouse to compete for titles. He is a cornerstone for the future of the organization.

"He's such a competitive guy, which is why he is where he is," Newmark said. "He's got a drive that is unmatched out there. But it is one of those things you've got to preach patience to him and make him understand he's in it for the long haul."

Stenhouse has kept that perspective through all the attention surrounding his love life. And he's not nearly as concerned about being identified as Patrick's boyfriend as he is being confused with Richard Childress Racing Nationwide Series driver Austin Dillon, who like him wears a cowboy hat around the garage and in public.

"I was walking around at Bristol and some guy came up and said, 'Austin, sign this for me,'" Stenhouse recalled of one incident. "I looked at him and went back to talking to my Best Buy [sponsor] group that was there.

"Then he was, 'Austin!' I'm like, 'I'm not Austin!' I gave him like four chances and he still thought I was Austin."

That sounds like something for E! News. But Stenhouse's goal isn't to be a part of entertainment gossip. It's to be a championship driver.

"Like I was trying to tell everybody at media day, once we get on the track everybody will be talking about the new car -- and obviously Joey and Denny has kind of taken the spotlight away -- which has been nice," Stenhouse said. "I thought it would get a little bit better, and it has.

"I'm just glad I was right about that."