Relationship Status: Normal-ish

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Danica Patrick, NASCAR Driver / Stewart-Haas Racing - The Players' Tribune

Look, if it’s crazy to want to go to sleep next to the person who ran your car off the road going 200 miles per hour earlier that day, then I’m certifiable. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a balls-to-the wall, go-hard-or-go-home, lift-only-when-you-see-God-twice kind of NASCAR driver. He’s Ford. I’m Chevy. It’s the Montagues and the Capulets. He’s grits. I’m granola. We’re the opposite in almost every way.

He’s also extremely cuddly, which really helps his cause, because sometimes I’m not very happy with him. When we crashed Sept. 12 at Chicagoland Speedway, we had an old-fashioned racing disagreement. Ricky thought I was going to leave him a lane—he thought wrong. I didn’t think he was there anymore, so I went up the track and we hit the wall.

After the crash, I walked up to him outside our buses. He hates me swearing, but in the spirit of accuracy, I said, “I’m so (bleeping) sorry. I didn’t realize you were there. (Bleeping) spotter said the 14 was on the inside and I thought that meant you weren’t there anymore. So sorry.”

And he’s like, “Meh. Yeah, I figured.”

Then I heard later that his spotter said he could’ve lifted off the gas to avoid the crash. I could be described as extremely confrontational. I prefer to see it as brutally honest.

I said, “Hey, your spotter said you could you have lifted. Could you have lifted?”

Ricky said, “Well, yeah, but there were only 10 laps to go.”

I’m like, “… What?!” And then there were probably a few bleeps (in my head, ofcourse).

The sports media prefers simple narratives: Good vs. Evil. Teammates vs. Enemies. NASCAR can be a lot more complicated. The truth is that there are more misunderstandings than understandings between Ricky and I, because our only mentality is to go flat-out. Hard, hard, hard. I want to take care of him out there just like I would a teammate, but at the same time, I want to beat him because I respect him so damn much as a driver. Right now, only 13 points separate us in the standings, so beating him means beating someone who is really good, which is my job.

I’m sure that statement makes some people wonder how our relationship works because there is so much about our relationship that is not normal. But I am no stranger to doing things differently. The detractors are probably the same people who saw me crash at the Daytona 500 in 2012 and assumed I took my hands off the wheel because I was covering my eyes in fear. Anybody in racing knows I took them off the wheel to save my hands. The first thing that hits in IndyCar, which is what I used to race, is the front tire. With no power steering, the wheel flips and your hands can get caught.

Don’t get me wrong, I do get positive attention because I’m a woman. I will be the last person on earth to say, “Oh, poor me.” When I have a good race, like when I finished sixth a few weeks ago at Atlanta, I got a ton of support. Plenty of drivers have the same result every single weekend and don’t get near the same publicity. Balancing that difference can be tricky. On the plane ride back from Atlanta, it was Ricky, me and our puppy. Ricky had a bad race. I had my best-ever finish. I was very happy. He was very bummed, and the plane ride was quiet. But after about 10 minutes, we did what all drivers do in awkward moments of silence. We talked about how our cars were running. Pretty soon, everything in our relationship was back to normal. Well, our normal anyway.

In NASCAR, we have a lot more bad weekends than good ones. That’s just the nature of the sport. If you can’t get over it, you’re going to be miserable or eventually out of a job. Despite the stress of what we do for a living, Ricky and I often ask ourselves, “What would a normal couple do in this situation?”

My position as a woman in racing has always been anything but normal. Some people will ask, why date another driver? Why add that layer of scrutiny? How does that work?

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My answer is simple: Everyone deserves to be happy. You don’t get to choose what truly makes you happy, and we’re not the first couple to navigate the workplace romance waters. We constantly have our families around. Both will be at the race this weekend. Now we have a dog (with her own Twitter account @DallasStenhouse) and it makes me think about the question of children, so that’s a decision for us to consider in our future. This is stuff that I didn’t entertain before I was with him and it’s a big part of my life now. It’s a question that every ambitious, working woman has to grapple with.

But more than anything, being happy makes me a better racecar driver.

I learned that when I was 18. I was racing in England, living all alone, trying to stomach full English breakfasts and stay in touch with my family way before the iPhone. It was lonely. I was miserable. The other drivers weren’t that nice to me. You know when people are whispering things and you can kind of see them out of the corner of your eye and know that they’re talking about you? That was my life in England.

But during the 2000 Formula Ford Festival, my mom came to visit and the entire vibe changed. I smiled and waved at everybody—the race marshals, track employees, volunteers. I just felt this good energy and rolled with it. I was actually having fun.

I kicked ass that weekend. That’s when it dawned on me that I race better when I’m happy. And Ricky makes me happy, even if he pisses me off on the track every now and then. Couples argue from time to time, of course. That’s normal, right? Ahhh, who am I kidding, I don’t really care what’s normal and what’s not. I have never lived my life asking that question, so why would I start now?

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