Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is coming off of the best year of his career in the NASCAR Cup Series. He won the first race of his Cup Series career, and he made the playoffs for Roush Fenway Racing.
But you could argue that Stenhouse's accomplishments on the track were overshadowed by his relationship with Danica Patrick, which ended shortly after the season came to an end at Homestead. Patrick announced the two had split in late November, and she is now dating Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, Stenhouse has remained quiet about the relationship and the breakup.
As Stenhouse prepares for the 2018 season, one analyst believes the breakup with Patrick might actually be a good thing for his career. WPXI columnist Jenny Fryer wrote that Stenhouse is ready to step out of Patrick's shadow as he looks to build on his career year.
"Stenhouse started to flourish on the race track last season and, if he chooses, can be an important part of NASCAR's future," Fryer wrote. "His victories at Talladega and Daytona last year absolutely had a lot to do with the horsepower Doug Yates put in Stenhouse's Ford at those tracks, but he still showed he has the ability to win.
"Stenhouse had done very little to shine on the race track prior to last season, but much of his Cup career has been spent with a rebuilding Roush Fenway Racing team. His numbers from last season are all career bests, and while they aren't spectacular statistics, he still showed that RFR and the No. 17 team are making progress."
Fryer said Stenhouse now needs to become a leader at Roush Fenway Racing if he wants to take the next step as a driver.
"The next steps will require Stenhouse to be a leader at Roush, with his race team and the organization," she wrote. "Stenhouse has an opportunity to become something much bigger than Patrick's plus one. He was 25 when they began dating, didn't go to college and most of his learning was done in race cars."
Stenhouse has the talent to become a contender in the Cup Series. His two wins at Daytona and Talladega last season weren't flukes, and he also won back-to-back Xfinity Series championships in 2011 and 2012.
He'll have the chance to start the season on the right note at Daytona, and he's proven he knows how to win at restrictor plate races. This season is a big one for Stenhouse, and he has the opportunity to step out of Patrick's shadow without saying a word about the relationship.