NASCAR drivers have a lot on their minds as they maneuver their cars around racetracks, hitting speeds of just over 200 mph on occasion.
They wonder where their competition is on the track. They wonder if their cars will handle well enough to make the next turn without them spinning out or wrecking a fellow competitor. And they wonder about the pit strategy their crew chiefs are discussing with them on the radio.
As NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gazes out his windshield on the track and sees a plain white hood for some of the races he is competing in this year, he has an additional question running through his mind – how much longer will Roush Fenway Racing be able to keep him in a car that is not sponsored?
Team owner Jack Roush is committed to keeping him in the car all season, regardless of the sponsorship issue, but the 23-year-old Stenhouse knows he cannot continue racing long-term without sponsorship. By finishing in the top 10 for the first three races of the 2011 season, however, he finds himself in second place in the point standings and prospective sponsors are beginning to notice.
"Ricky has commitments for a third of the remaining races, and his recent on-track success has generated interest from several partners interested in the remaining races," said Jimmy White, a media relations representative for Roush Fenway Racing, to The Christian Post this week.
Last fall, The Christian Post interviewed Stenhouse and he spoke about how his faith in Christ sees him through the tough times. He was honest about the difficulties while trusting in God's plan for his future.
"It tests your faith, that's for sure," Stenhouse said, referring to the sponsorship issue. "You've got to put your faith in Him and just pray about it and hopefully good things will come from it. It's tough. It makes you want to question it at some point, but then again it always seems like He comes through, somehow, some way – whether it be a way you thought it would be or a different way."
Stephen Keller, from Motor Racing Outreach who serves as the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series chaplain, describes Stenhouse as being quiet in his temperament and consistent in his faith.
"I don't think he's ever missed one of our Bible studies; he's very committed to it," Keller said about a group of NASCAR Nationwide drivers that includes Stenhouse, Michael McDowell, Justin Allgaier, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and others who meet every Saturday at the track in various haulers. The group is currently working through the book of Romans.
"In terms of his character and his life, he's a very consistent witness for the Lord. He's known among his peers as a believer. There's just no question in anybody's mind. He makes my job a lot more doable. He's one of those guys, in terms of a driver, who has partnered with me in ministry.
"Whether we're praying for somebody together or, every now and then when there is an event that he can be a part of that's ministry related – whether it's reaching out to guys and inviting them into the study, he's just a great part of chapel life and Bible study."
NASCAR drivers and their teams compete from February through November, so they are away from their homes and home churches most of the year. Believers in the sport need to be intentional about making time to worship and to meet with one another.
"It's tough being a racecar driver and being a Christian and going to church," Stenhouse said. "We're traveling a lot. We have the MRO chapel service here but it has to be quick and to the point. Being in the Nationwide Series (which usually races on Saturday), we can get home sometimes and still go to church. If we make it to the Sprint Cup level, it'll be a little tougher yet. I take [my faith] pretty serious, so our study group has helped out a tremendous amount."
His roots as a Christian and a race car driver were planted deeply in Olive Branch, Miss., where he grew up in a Christian family with a father who was a Sprint Car racer.
"I got baptized in June of 2001, I think," said Stenhouse, whose family attended a Church of Christ church. "But I always went to church camp, went to church every Sunday, went to Bible class. My granddad was an elder at our church, so it was a big part of my life growing up.
"My dad raced so we were out at the racetrack late at night on Saturdays, getting up early on Sunday morning going to church. It was a big part of my life – being with my family and going to church."
Stenhouse could only watch his dad race for so long though. He wanted to race too. So, at the age of six, he began racing go-karts. By 15 he had 47 A-main Karting victories and 90+ podium finishes. He eventually found himself behind the wheel of a car for Tony Stewart Racing in the USAC (United States Auto Club) National Sprint Car and USAC National Midget Series at events all over the country.
Stenhouse says he probably wasn't as serious about his faith growing up as he should have been, but being in the Bible study the past couple of seasons with other drivers has changed him.
"I felt like Trevor and Michael and those guys were on a different level in their life with God, but being with them and doing the study group has elevated my level even more this year and we're looking forward to making it grow each and every weekend."
Stenhouse is seeing that very thing happen. The group has expanded from four to eight drivers each week and sometimes ten. Keller says part of that growth occurred as Stenhouse and the other drivers lived out their faith in front of the people in the garage and part of it occurred after Bayne, who is close friends with Stenhouse, won the Daytona 500 in February.
"When Trevor won the 500, just about everybody in the group was absolutely ecstatic or was weeping with joy," Keller said. "We felt like we had all won it together. And several of the guys who had been witnessing to other people – some of the people they had been sharing Christ with said, 'You know, for the first time I feel like I've seen a miracle because this shouldn't have happened.'
"It was an event that I think God used to let us see how close we had become as a group, but also it really became a part of our testimony together."