Patrick happier than ever, on and off the track

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - 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 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 race track, where she has struggled to put together results to match the hype.

Patrick was, in all regards, an enigma.

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.

"Now that her husband's out of there _ he was not a good influence on her, I can tell you that," Andretti said in March, two months after Patrick's historic run at Daytona. "That's when things went south with us when he started getting involved. He was very controlling. Had her think in funny ways. She was getting out of control. Her head was getting so big. You just couldn't talk to her. I'm hoping she's coming back down to Earth a little bit."

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 had 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.

She watches dirt track racing, goes to Professional Bull Riding events and has taken up golf, improving from an inability to hit the ball to trash-talking with Stenhouse and confidently wagering with him there will come a day she will beat him on the links.

"I'd say I have a lot more fun doing a lot of different things," Patrick said. "There's a lot more things that I've tried for the first time this year and I'm open to doing, whether it's going skeet shooting or learning how to play golf. The fun we've had having our families here on the weekend, just having everybody stay on the buses and be with us. It's just been a great year."

And that goes for the track, too, regardless of what the statistics show.

Patrick finished 27th in the final Sprint Cup standings and lost the rookie battle to Stenhouse, who finished 19th. Although she completed 94.2 percent 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. "I think she realizes to a certain degree she took a big bite doing this as early as she did, and I think everybody's judging of her, grading of her, I think you have to look at how much time she's really had in a stock car. The time she's been in a stock car, she's done a pretty good job. I value it for what it is, not necessarily the result at the end of the day."

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 that 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.

"I'm not sure if she's so used to IndyCar and how it is, I think she struggles finding and knowing what to do to work around the problem," Stewart said. "As soon as they get it close for her, the pace comes up. But at the beginning, when everybody's cars aren't driving well, we have to figure out how to get her more comfortable wrestling the car."

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. There is a big contrast in those moments."

She is judged harshly by fans who look at her numbers, or see her running at the back of the field, and scoff at her presence in the Sprint Cup Series. They argue she's only with Stewart-Haas Racing because sponsor GoDaddy pays her tab, and she hasn't earned the right to race alongside 2014 teammates Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

"She doesn't read the comments at all," Stenhouse said. "She's pretty hard on herself, she doesn't need to read it from anyone else."

Stenhouse, the protective boyfriend and on-track competitor, has learned to tune out the critics and not focus on Patrick's race. He said he will sometimes notice another driver racing her harder than necessary, but it's not his problem and he does nothing but discuss it after with her.

"I'll talk to her, but as far as confront them? No," he said.

"Let's create an army," Patrick goaded. "Come on. Tony is on board. Kevin is on board. Kurt is on board. It's an army of awesome."

"Huh?" Stenhouse said, wrinkling his forehead. "I mean, I've got my own things to do out there."

"It's fine," she replied. "I'll learn to fight my own fights out there. I'll learn how to take people out."

Happier than she's ever been, personally and professionally, Patrick sees a bright 2014 ahead. As SHR expands to four cars and adds Harvick and Busch, she knows expectations will be even higher for her to perform. But with a year of experience, she hopes to meet new goals Stewart sets for her progress.

In the meantime, she'll travel to Las Vegas next week for the season-ending awards banquet, where she'll play a supporting role as Stenhouse collects his Rookie of the Year title. The competitor in her isn't thrilled, and Patrick feigned a halfhearted cheer.

"I'm just kidding, babe," she smiled at Stenhouse, "I'm extremely happy for you. You had to beat me."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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