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Prepared for the spotlight

TBO.com
Associated Press
The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 09:35 PM

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DAYTONA BEACH -

He is presently known as one half of "Stenica" or "Danicky," or whatever nickname NASCAR's power couple has been given.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., of course, is far more than Danica Patrick's boyfriend. He is the two-time Nationwide Series champion, and he is making the move to the big league this season as the replacement driver at Roush-Fenway Racing for two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth.

Casual fans probably don't know much about Stenhouse's accomplishments, which have been overlooked since he and Patrick announced they were dating. The couple will compete against each other for Sprint Cup rookie of the year this season.

Stenhouse, so far, has been OK with the attention.

"Obviously, it is a big story," he said. "It just isn't my most important story. I am here to race. I think once the season gets going and we can talk about how great this Gen-6 car is going to be and how great the racing is going to be, hopefully it can take a back seat and we can focus on our racing."

So just who is Danica's new man?

The 25-year-old Mississippi native, often seen wearing a cowboy hat and a huge silver belt buckle celebrating one of his Nationwide titles, became the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win back-to-back Nationwide titles.

In the season finale at Homestead last season, when his spotter was imploring him to lay back and race conservatively to wrap up the title, Stenhouse keyed the mic so he couldn't hear him anymore. He races hard and doesn't hold back on the track, something Tony Stewart learned while fielding sprint cars for a young Stenhouse.

"The hardest part was pulling the reins back in on him," Stewart said. "There were races he'd have half a lap lead on second place and crash the car with 10 laps to go. That was the hard stuff to get him to understand, is you don't have to go 100 percent every lap. That's stuff that he's learned in the last couple years in Nationwide, is how to take his aggressive style and at the same time be smart about it, make it work to his advantage."

Stenhouse got a promotion this year from RFR to replace Kenseth, the 2004 Cup champion who left for Joe Gibbs Racing. He will drive the No. 17 Ford and his move up coincides with Patrick's.

The two became close over the last two years, first in Nationwide rookie meetings together, then as Patrick leaned on Stenhouse when she went full-time last year in the series.

All eyes are on Patrick this week after she won the pole for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500, but Stenhouse fully expects to get his due this season when the discussion turns to his job as driver of the No. 17 Ford.

"I think it is a cool opportunity for me to come into Matt's number with a totally different team, and because of the story people don't realize it is a different crew chief, team and over the wall guys," he said. "The only thing the same is the number and the sponsors. I think we have accomplished a lot in NASCAR in the Nationwide series, and to think that is going to translate right over to the Sprint Cup Series the first year is a little difficult.

"But I think we are capable of doing that though and that is the plan."

55TH DAYTONA 500

Final practice: Today, 10:30 a.m., Speed Channel

Race: Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox (Ch. 13)

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