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Ricky and Madyson Stenhouse.

A Test of Faith: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins the Daytona 500

The faith of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had been tested more than once during his often-difficult first decade on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, the top level of stock car racing.

As a young driver, there were struggles to simply find sponsors. Then there were long stretches of not much success — only two wins in 10 years, and none since 2017. There was his unexpected release from his first Cup Series team in 2019. Stenhouse was known in NASCAR circles as a Christian man who often drove aggressively yet struggled to break through to victory.

Now he’s known as the winner of NASCAR’s biggest race, the DAYTONA 500. Stenhouse edged defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano on Sunday night in dramatic fashion in what’s known as “The Great American Race” at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Stenhouse led by just a few feet when a last-lap caution flag in the second overtime ended the race. He said afterward his No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro was out of gas when the caution lights came on — he didn’t have enough fuel left to do a traditional burnout after he was declared the winner.

Much as a golfer or tennis player winning a major tournament, or an NFL quarterback on a Super Bowl-winning team, Stenhouse now will have the label of someone who’s won at the highest level of his sport.

“Man, this is unbelievable. This was the site of my last win back in 2017,” Stenhouse said Sunday night during an on-track interview with FOX Sports. “We’ve worked really hard. We had a couple shots last year to get a win and fell short. It was a tough season, but man, we got it done, Daytona 500.”

Stenhouse, 35, never has been shy about discussing his faith. From Olive Branch — a town of about 40,000 in far northwest Mississippi, not far from Memphis, Tennessee. — he grew up attending a Church of Christ with his parents.

“I got baptized in June of 2001, I think,” Stenhouse previously stated. “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.”


Photo: video screen grab.

As a young driver, he quickly became known for his good deeds off the track. In 2012, with NASCAR racing at nearby Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, he was one of five drivers — including two other former DAYTONA 500 champs, Trevor Bayne and Michael McDowell — who joined Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team to clear tornado debris from the yard of an elderly man. Stenhouse also has been active in

For a time, he dated well-known driver Danica Patrick, and he told the Los Angeles Times in 2014 that she often attended Sunday services with him at a Baptist church in Mooresville, North Carolina, or the chapel service held before most NASCAR races during the racing season.

“It’s part of the way I grew up and it’s taught me a lot of lessons,” Stenhouse said about attending church services regularly.

Since last October, he’s been married to Madyson Joye Goodfleisch. His best man at the wedding was fellow NASCAR driver Kyle Larson, a former Cup Series champion.

His father was a sprint-car racer, and Stenhouse caught the racing bug. He began racing go-karts at age 6. In 2004, he began racing in the United States Auto Club Sprint Car series. He moved from dirt racing into stock car racing in 2008, competing in the Automobile Racing Club of America Series. He won his first stock car race in May 2008 at Kentucky Speedway.

The next year, he moved into what’s now known as the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s second-tier national series. He won series championships in 2011 and 2012, earning himself a job in the Cup Series for the 2013 season with Roush Fenway Racing, one of the sport’s top teams at the time.

But the team and driver both struggled to find consistent success. Finally, in 2017, Stenhouse won the GEICO 500 at Talladega Speedway, ending a 101-race losing streak for his team. Later that season, in July, he won a second race at Daytona International Speedway, and he competed in the Cup Series playoffs, in which he advanced through the first round — during which four of 16 drivers are cut from the field —  but fell in the second round. Sunday’s win essentially already qualifies him for this season’s playoffs.

He signed a contract extension in August 2019, but a month later, Roush Fenway Racing said Stenhouse would be replaced. Another month later, JTG Daugherty Racing — one of the sport’s smaller teams — announced that Stenhouse would drive for them in the No. 47 car starting in 2020.

Stenhouse started 2020 with three top-five finishes in the first half of the season but didn’t win again. Before Sunday, it had been more than 5½ years since Stenhouse last drove into Victory Lane following a NASCAR Cup Series event — he had lost in 199 straight races. The DAYTONA 500 win was only the second Cup Series win ever for JTG Daugherty.

But the belief still remained. Stenhouse’s crew chief, Mike Kelly, taped a note inside the car Sunday that said, “We believe.” The car’s owners felt the same.

“We didn’t give up on Ricky because personally, I feel like he’s got the spirit of a winner and I like what he represents as a person,” team co-owner Jodi Geschickter told The Associated Press. “I see flashes of brilliance in what he does. I felt like he could do it. I felt like he could get the job done, and I never questioned that.”

Stenhouse, rattling off a list of names of top NASCAR drivers past and present who never won the DAYTONA 500, said he’s glad to be on the elite list of champions.

“I know how hard it is for guys to win this race and it’s nice to go ahead and get that checked off the list,” Stenhouse said.

Despite the long losing streak, “I definitely never thought about giving up. … I think for me, coming to JTG Daugherty Racing, was a nice reset. It’s super cool to get them in Victory Lane.”

–Murray Evans is a longtime sports journalist who spent 23 years as a sports and news reporter, including 13 with The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City and more than eight with The Associated Press in Lexington, Kentucky, and Oklahoma City.


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