Column: Stenhouse writes new chapter as a NASCAR winner

TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) ''I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard.''

With those eight words spoken by Danica Patrick in 2013, everything Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had accomplished in his career became a footnote.

He was suddenly ''Danica's boyfriend.'' The princess of auto racing had finally found her prince charming, mullet and all.

The moment the fellow NASCAR drivers went public with their relationship, Stenhouse was thrust into a spotlight that had nothing to do with his racing resume. He was an accessory. Because he was a young driver trying to make it in the big leagues with a team on a rapid descent into mediocrity, Stenhouse had little chance to stand on his own.

He was, for the first few years, the man on Danica's arm.

But ever so slowly, he chipped away at his craft. He got better and has been hands-on in the long, painful rebuild at Roush Fenway Racing. All the while, it was Patrick standing by his side, pushing him to work harder, eat healthier and simply be better.

Now Stenhouse is a Monster Energy Cup Series winner, and it was his famous girlfriend who was there to greet him Sunday when he pulled into victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway. It was their first trip to the podium as a couple, and because she'd crashed out earlier in the race, she'd been able to watch him use a last-lap pass of Kyle Busch to nab his first victory in 158 career Cup starts. She was in street clothes for the celebration that began when she leaned in for a big kiss.

This was a huge moment. For Stenhouse. For his father, who was almost arrested trying to climb a fence to cross the track to get to his son in his biggest moment. For the couple that races but doesn't win.

The moment, for once, belonged to Stenhouse.

''Both of our main focus is to go out and run well and win races and do what we have to do to do that,'' Stenhouse said of Patrick. ''She understands that I'm going to go to the shop a lot, and to have that support and her knowing where I'm coming from is great to have. I don't mind being known as her boyfriend. She doesn't mind being known as my girlfriend. It goes either way, and we couldn't be in a better place right now.''

NASCAR was there to celebrate with the couple, Stenhouse the latest new face to win in a series undergoing a serious changing of the guard.

At 29, Stenhouse is still young enough to develop into a star. His victory at Talladega earned him a spot in the All-Star race and, likely, the playoffs. He did it for a Roush team that was once the pride of the Ford camp but has been on a decline for years.

The team that once fielded Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle and won back-to-back championships in 2003 and 2004 has downsized to just two drivers and a lot of sub-par finishes. But Roush has slowly established a bit of consistency, and the improvement is evident through 10 races this year.

Trevor Bayne is 16th in the standings. Stenhouse has nearly hit career highs in every category, is 12th in the standings, and most important to the organization, both have a shot to make the 16-driver playoff field.

''I think it means everything for us,'' team President Steve Newmark said. ''Ricky has had ample opportunity to mail it in, yet he's at the shop at 6:30 a.m. working with the guys on occasion, and he has really taken that leadership mantle. He and Trevor both have stepped up, and that's really what's brought us back.''

The Talladega victory was such a sweet redemption for Stenhouse, a Mississippi native who considers it his home track. And it was in 2014 - the last year a Roush driver had won a race before Sunday - that Stenhouse embarrassingly failed to qualify at Talladega. He had to stay for the race, honor sponsor commitments, watch Patrick race and wonder if he was on a sinking ship with Roush.

Still, he had won a pair of Xfinity titles with Roush and he had faith the team could win again.

''I believed in all the guys that I had around me and the team, that they still wanted the same thing that I wanted, and that was to get back in victory lane, to compete, and to know that we're here every weekend like we were in the Xfinity Series,'' Stenhouse said. ''I want that feeling here. We're not there yet, but they know we're here. We're on some of them's radar screen. We're not on all of them yet. There's teams that don't look at us throughout practice yet, but they will.''

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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