Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Dating: NASCAR Drivers Announce Relationship After Patrick Files For Divorce From Paul Hospenthal [PHOTO]

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By IBTimes Staff Reporter | January 26, 2013 2:10 AM EST

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Danica Patrick has announced that she is dating fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Patrick revealed that she and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are a couple, ending much speculation about the two drivers.

"I have a boyfriend, his name is Richard," she said during an exclusive telephone interview with AP. "I think I am just finally excited to tell someone about this." She added.

Stenhouse Jr., a two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion also confirmed to the AP that he is dating the 2012 NNS Most Popular Driver.

"Yes we are dating," he said. "I don't normally say too much about my private life, always been focused on the track. I didn't want to confirm at media day so that we could keep the focus on the season, the Gen-6 (car), my sponsors and team. That's what it's all about for me."

The announcement came at the end of Charlotte Motor Speedway's weeklong annual media tour.

According to Patrick’s interview with the AP, the two became close friends when they raced each other the last two seasons in the Nationwide Series. Stenhouse reportedly became a mentor to Patrick, 30, who left IndyCar after the 2011 season to make the full-time switch to NASCAR.

But now after Patrick announced in November she and husband Paul Hospenthal were divorcing after seven years, and said in the Jan. 3 filing that her marriage to the 47-year-old Hospenthal was "irretrievably broken," she is apparently ready to move on.

"We are dating, and I know there's been a bit of a runaround this week at the media days and poor Ricky got grilled (with questions)," she said. "It was out of respect to NASCAR, to all the manufacturers, the new cars, the teams, the sponsors, just to allow the news of the day to be about racing and not let anything interfere with that. So, it's Friday now, so that's why we waited until the end of the week to be up front about each other."

While Patrick has a well-known reputation for staying tight-lipped about her personal life, she told the AP that he made an exception this time to end the gossip and so the two could be open about their relationship.

"I think that moving forward into the year, it's a matter of do you say anything at all, or do you just carry on?" she said. "As opposed to speculation and people making up their own stories or talking amongst themselves or us feeling uncomfortable walking into each other's (motorhomes) moving forward, or around our teams or anything, it's just easier to be up front and get it out of the way then to have any kind of awkward speculation."

Stenhouse was asked during the media tour's stop at Roush Fenway Racing if he was dating Patrick. He dodged the question, saying "we've got a great relationship" and then turned attention back to racing.

Now that the two drivers are out and about as a couple, NASCAR insiders and fans are wondering how the relationship will affect how they compete against each other on the racetrack. Patrick said she won't race Stenhouse any differently.

"Obviously, we've been racing together for a couple years now, him and I have always gotten along, we've always had a lot of respect for each other on the track, there's never been an issue out there," she said. "I always say I'll race people how they race me until they do something to make me change my mind. I don't anticipate that changing at all, or us having any issues on the track."

Stenhouse concurred with Patrick’s response.

"It won't affect how I race on the track. I want to go out and win, I race everyone hard," he said.

Patrick will race the 2013 NASCAR Spring Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing. Her first season in the NSCS, her best finish was 17th in her season finale at Phoenix.

Stenhouse has won eight races over the last two seasons to become the first driver since Martin Truex Jr. in 2004-05 to win consecutive Nationwide titles. He was promoted this year by Roush Fenway to the Cup Series to replace 2003 NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth.

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