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Inside NASCAR: For Stenhouse and Bayne, friendship has strong ties

October 05, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leads all Nationwide title contenders with two wins, 13 top-fives and 21 top-10s. (Getty Images)

For Stenhouse and Bayne, competition can't blur line that binds friendship

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. received the telephone call about a year ago, and in the middle of the night. While the timing may have been unusual, the voice on the other end was not -- it belonged to Trevor Bayne, who wanted to let Stenhouse know before the news broke that he would be joining him at Roush Fenway Racing the following season. Stenhouse had endured a turbulent rookie campaign in the Nationwide Series, full of difficult moments where he feared for his job. Bayne wanted his friend to know that his impending arrival at Roush did not mean that Stenhouse's ride was in jeopardy.

"I was in Mississippi," remembered Stenhouse, a native of Olive Branch in the Magnolia State. "Trevor called me at, I think it was 4:30 in the morning central time, and told me, 'Just so you know, this is what's going on. I'm coming to Roush. I made sure when I was talking to them that it's not going to kick you out of a ride or anything like that.' So that was really cool. I think it made our friendship better. Now we get to hang out a lot more since we're on the same team."

"I think having that good a friendship, I think it makes you enjoy this sport more. It makes the road more enjoyable when we're hanging out, going to do stuff on the weekends we're at the track, and stuff like that."

--RICKY STENHOUSE JR.

Bayne didn't have to get that promise out of Roush, didn't have to call Stenhouse before dawn to relay it. That he did illustrates the depth of friendship between these two burgeoning NASCAR stars, one the Daytona 500 champion, the other the leader for the Nationwide Series championship. In a sport that's more competitive than it's ever been, when drivers are jostling one another for position on the track and for sponsored rides off it, it's not easy for close friendships to survive. Feelings get hurt, career paths diverge, demands take precedence. And yet here are Stenhouse and Bayne, Ricky and Trevor, their names always linked like two cars circling Talladega Superspeedway, enjoying breakthrough seasons that seem to be following parallel tracks.

They shouldn't be this close, really. They are both ambitious and highly competitive, they race each other relentlessly in each week's Nationwide race, and they are both in the mix for whatever precious and few full-time Sprint Cup opportunities open up on their race team. One won the sport's biggest race, became an overnight star, and has struggled to find footing since. One started slowly and is showing the kind of week-to-week consistency it takes to win championships. Even in the short time they've known each other, there's been ample opportunity for jealousy or rivalry to creep in and sever the friendly bonds between them.

It hasn't happened. And to hear them talk, you wonder if it ever will.

"It has been cool to kind of come up together, and to be at this point where we could both be potentially running some Cup races," Bayne said. "You want to see success for your friends and for people around you. You also want to beat them, so that's kind of tough. At the 500, Ricky was there in Victory Lane, and that was cool, but at the same time, I know he wishes he was in the [car]. And at this point of the Nationwide season, I wish our car was on that side of the garage battling for the points championship. We cheer each other on, but at the same time, we want to beat each other, too. So it's good."

For all its glamour and speed, life on the road in NASCAR carries with it plenty of isolation and downtime. Not for these two. Yes, they try to beat one another in the Nationwide Series, but they try to beat one another in everything else, too -- from basketball to golf to wakeboarding, to any outlandish activity the Roush marketing team can dream up for a series of online videos that pits Stenhouse and Bayne against one another. Dizzy bat race, anyone? Carl Edwards backflip impersonation? (Into water, of course.) Just another day in the lives of Ricky and Trevor.

"I think having that good a friendship, I think it makes you enjoy this sport more," Stenhouse said. "Running go-karts, and when I was running sprint cars and things like that, every driver hung out with everybody. That's just what you did. Everybody hung out, had fun. You'd get done racing, everybody would kind of go hang out and just enjoy the time. It seems like over time, running in the NASCAR series, everybody kind of sticks to their own trailer. It makes the road more enjoyable when we're hanging out, going to do stuff on the weekends we're at the track, and stuff like that. So I think it makes the whole season a lot better."

Steve Newmark has witnessed it firsthand. The Roush Fenway president remembers arriving back at the team hotel after dinner during the February race weekend in Phoenix, and being unsurprised at seeing Bayne and Stenhouse on the lighted basketball court outside, going at it like the NBA championship was on the line. And yet, the competitive nature between the two drivers belies a deeper connection that initially formed around chapel and Bible study, one that provides support whenever one or the other needs it, allows for the sharing of common experiences in the racing arena, and helps both to stay grounded.

"I think they're both very thankful they have each other to go through this with," Newmark said. "It's a new experience for each of them, and I do think they rely on each other to bounce off ideas and to be supportive. I know our older drivers mentor them, as well, but they're just fortunate to have somebody who's experiencing the exact same highs and lows. Because they've both experienced highs and lows over the past year. ... I do think it provides good support for each of them, to know they can talk about these issues with somebody who can directly relate to what's going on."

Circle of friends

Bayne and Stenhouse first competed against one another in go-karts, but the age difference between them -- Stenhouse is four years older -- meant they often were in different divisions, and they didn't really know one another. From there their careers diverged, with Bayne heading down the more traditional late-model stock-car path, and Stenhouse bound for sprint cars. Their first meeting came in 2009, when both were dipping a toe into the Nationwide Series for the first time, Stenhouse with Roush and Bayne for a team co-owned by Gary Bechtel and Michael Waltrip.

As two drivers with strong faiths, they quickly discovered they had more in common than racing. Stenhouse remembers their first meeting coming in a chapel service prior to a Nationwide event. "I found out he was a Christian, and I was, and we were kind of getting a small group together," said Bayne, 20. "That's how we started hanging out, because I knew him and a couple of his buddies weren't like partiers or anything like that. And I was the same way, so we all started hanging out, and it all started growing from there."

Eventually, with help from former Motor Racing Outreach chaplain Lonnie Clouse, it grew into a larger faith-based group that includes other drivers such as Justin Allgaier, Michael McDowell, Josh Wise and Blake Koch. The group conducts regular Bible studies throughout the week, including one for an hour every Saturday morning before races. When Bayne was in the Mayo Clinic battling an illness that would sideline him for five weeks, he would participate via conference call.

After winning the Daytona 500, the media glare of a whirlwind tour was thrust upon the unassuming Bayne. (Getty Images)
Subbing for Bayne in NASCAR's longest race, Stenhouse finished 11th in his Cup debut at Charlotte. (Getty Images)

"It's just this young group of guys that share this common faith, knowing that this sport is difficult, and there are highs and lows," said McDowell, who became friends with Bayne when he was doing road-course testing for Michael Waltrip Racing, and Bayne was in the team's No. 99 Nationwide car. "It's a group that holds each other accountable, that doesn't let each other get too out of control, and also will be there when things aren't going good."

That support is needed during times like Bayne's illness earlier this season, or last year when Stenhouse was trying to hang on through his rookie Nationwide campaign. That kind of friendship, though, also makes the good times that much sweeter. Before the Daytona 500, Stenhouse came down to pit road, stuck his head inside Bayne's No. 21 car, and told him he'd see him in Victory Lane -- where he was after his friend's improbable victory. Weeks later, when Stenhouse drove the No. 21 at Charlotte due to Bayne's illness, the favor was returned. Bayne was on the scene, giving Stenhouse all the support and encouragement he could muster.

"That was an unbelievable thing to witness," Newmark said. "Because these are two guys who are ostensibly competing for the title of hottest young driver out there, and although they have a good-natured competition, their friendship supersedes that."

* Video: Relive Bayne's thrilling Daytona 500

Although several members of the Bible study group had experienced successes of their own prior to this season -- mostly notably Allgaier, the only Nationwide regular to win a race on that circuit last year -- Bayne's victory at Daytona opened a door to a new world. Overnight, the Knoxville, Tenn., native was catapulted to something approaching celebrity, appearing on talk shows, getting recognized on the street, heralded as the future of NASCAR. It was a head-spinning time, but Bayne knew he had a circle of friends who not only wouldn't try to take advantage of his sudden fame, but also would help remind him of the bigger picture.

"They were trying to keep me humble and keep me grounded," Bayne said. "They were like, 'Don't forget that it's not always going to be like this. Don't forget you're not always going to be on top.' It was good to have those kind of reminders and those friends who are close enough to tell you that, that aren't just there to ride your coattails when you're going to the top, or to build you up and build you up until when you're deflated, you hit bottom. That was really important for those guys to do that for me. But they definitely go through it with you. If you're at the bottom, they'll go down into the trenches with you and help build you up. If you're at the top, they'll celebrate with you. It's pretty cool."

In the immediate aftermath of the Daytona 500, McDowell never worried about Bayne developing an ego. He had other concerns. "Trevor, the biggest thing for him was, not that he wasn't grounded, but he was so busy. They ran him around like crazy. You know that's going to be a part of it, and you know that going into it. He's young and full of energy and all that stuff, but he just got worn out. They just completely wore him out," McDowell said.

"He like carried this hope of the young generation of the sport, and they wanted to get as much out of that as they could. For him, what he had to remember was, it's one race. It's a big race. It's an awesome race. But one race isn't going to make your career in NASCAR, especially with this economy. It's being able to perform every weekend, and building those relationships with sponsors and that brand. The Daytona 500 helps that, but it isn't a guaranteed ride. For Ricky, the Nationwide Series in this economy is the same thing. It doesn't guarantee him anything right now. You just have to stay humble, and know this sport is difficult, and take the good with the bad."

That's not a difficult thing to do for two drivers who have experienced extremes already in their young careers. Stenhouse hit rock bottom as a rookie, at one point wrecking three cars in a single weekend, and went from the brink of joblessness to Nationwide championship leader. Bayne won the Daytona 500, sat out more than a month because of illness, and has struggled to find consistency since his return. Both have competed much of this season in blank white race cars, going without sponsorship despite their positive exploits on the race track. In that environment, staying grounded comes with the territory.

Their white, unsponsored cars may look rather plain, but RickyvsTrevor.com is far from vanilla. (Getty Images)

"We remind each other a lot," said the 24-year-old Stenhouse, "that it can easily be taken away."

Ricky vs. Trevor

It started with Mark Martin. Or more specifically, a statuette of Mark Martin, one finger raised victoriously, in the office of Kevin Woods, Martin's former publicist and Roush Fenway's current director of corporate communications. One day, someone put a picture of Bayne over Martin's head. Stenhouse had a better run the next week, and mysteriously Stenhouse's photo appeared on the front, and Bayne's was moved to -- well, let's just say the backside area. It was that kind of interaction that led Roush to film a series of short videos pitting the two drivers against one another in various activities.

The inspiration? Just watching them in their daily life. Because as competitive as Bayne and Stenhouse are on the track, they are even more so off it. "It's nothing we don't normally do," Stenhouse said. "They just put it on a website."

And RickyvsTevor.com was born. Granted, some of the competitions seem a little silly, and some have sponsor connections, and clearly one goal of this is to try and show off a pair of young, charismatic drivers to whatever potential sponsors may be watching. But at its essence, it's still Bayne and Stenhouse in their natural competitive element -- which is, trying to beat the other at anything. The higher-ups at Roush couldn't help put notice. "These two just have a chemistry," Newmark said, "and they compete at everything."

"A lot of times when you have people who are that competitive, they're not able to still be friends and push each other. But we've been able to find that balance."

--TREVOR BAYNE

It helps that both Bayne and Stenhouse have a sense of humor, and approach any competition between them the right way. "There are clearly drivers out there you wouldn't want to pit in this kind of competition, because it would probably be destructive to their relationship," Newmark added. "But I think you look at how Ricky and Trevor support each other, they rely on each other, they're both experiencing similar things ... in this sport. So it's been a lot of fun for us to do, and we hope it's been a lot of fun for them, as well. But we really think they both have a maturity that's well beyond their years."

The videos offer a glimpse of how competitive Bayne and Stenhouse can be with one another -- after besting his friend in a contest involving emptying a pair of tissue boxes, Stenhouse celebrates by banging his boxes together under Bayne's nose, while Bayne slams his to the ground. Nobody takes it too seriously. But it makes you wonder what they're like in other activities, like paintball, wakeboarding or golf, when the cameras aren't rolling.

"I think we're more competitive at that stuff than we are on the race track," Stenhouse said. "It gets pretty intense sometimes."

It should come as no surprise, then, that when the drivers took part in a Nationwide appearance last year at the U.S. National Whitewater Center outside Charlotte, they asked specifically for a raft that could be flipped. They wound up wedged into a narrow "rodeo boat" that of course was turned upside down. Six times. "I still have scars on my knees from it," Stenhouse said. "We loved that. It was so much fun."

"We'll push each other," Bayne added. "Too far, sometimes."

Their friends are used to it. "I think the cool part is, they push each other," Allgaier said. "They went wakeboarding the other day, and Trevor is very good at wakeboarding, and Ricky really hasn't done it that much. They kept pushing, kept pushing. They got Ricky to jump wake to wake. Then they tried to get him to do a backflip. So they push each other, and that's what you need. Being friends off the race track is great, but then there's pushing each other and trying to get each other to be better."

Of course, that level of competition extends to their jobs, particularly now that Stenhouse and Bayne are racing for the same team. If one goes to the shop or goes to work out, Bayne said, the other feels pressure to keep up, because the same people are holding both drivers accountable.

"For sure they want to beat each other on the race track. And the reality is, they know they're racing each other for a job," McDowell said. "But they don't let it get out of control. It's like your buddies back home growing up, or even your brothers. When you play sports, you want to beat them, and Trevor and Ricky are no different. On the race track, it's business. Off the race track, it's a lot of fun. They are super-competitive, but it's light-spirited. On the race track, it's their job and their livelihood, and they have to answer to Jack [Roush] and to [Roush GM] Robbie Reiser on Monday. It's an interesting chemistry they have over there."

And it's a chemistry that thus far has precluded any serious arguments or disagreements between the two, despite the fact that they're on the race track every week, despite the fact that they're both hoping for Sprint Cup rides. For Stenhouse and Bayne, to this point at least, the friendship has come first.

"I think a lot of people, it affects [them] a lot. Luckily for Trevor and I, it hasn't affected us one bit," Stenhouse said. "We race each other hard on the race track. Luckily, we haven't had a run-in or anything like that. As far as us two, we get out of the car, we help each other. If one of us is struggling and the other is not, we'll go talk to them about different things we're doing inside the car. So far, it hasn't caused one issue at all, and that's pretty cool."

Contact with another car earlier this year at New Hampshire sends Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spinning into the path of Trevor Bayne, who is able to steer clear of his teammate and friend. (Getty Images)

Bayne agreed. "A lot of times when you have people who are that competitive, they're not able to still be friends and push each other," he said. "But we've been able to find that balance of, how do we keep a friendship off the track but still race each other as hard as we can -- or, as hard as anybody else without crashing each other."

Bound to happen?

If anything, in the beginning Bayne believes he and Stenhouse raced each other too hard, that it took a while for them to learn how to assimilate their natural competitive instincts toward one another into a full Nationwide event. "It was to the edge of almost wrecking each other a couple of times," Bayne remembered. Over time, they figured out how to race one another hard -- "harder than anybody else," in fact, Bayne said -- without losing their focus on everything else going on around them.

So yes, they'll go at it on the race track, in as heated a manner as they do on the basketball court or on the golf course. Enough to make anyone wonder when the inevitable -- Bayne and Stenhouse unintentionally crashing one another -- will occur. It's happened to plenty of teammates in the past, from Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth at Roush, to Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, to even friends Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports.

Close circles


Stenhouse and Bayne each have finished in the top 10 in seven of the 24 NNS races in which both have competed.

RaceStenhouseBayne
Las Vegas85
Fontana46
Nashville56
Michigan25
Nashville29
Dover56

"It's going to happen at some point, I would say," Stenhouse conceded, "especially since he's such a great driver and we both run up front. It's going to happen at some point."

Very often in those cases, words get pointed and relationships get frayed in the aftermath. Sometimes it takes a while for feelings to heal, sometimes interactions between teammates never are quite the same again. Newmark believes the friendship between Bayne and Stenhouse is solid enough to weather such a storm.

"I think everybody recognizes that's a part of racing," he said. "I fully expect that if there are two laps to go and they're 1-2, they're going to race each other as hard as they can, and whoever is in second is going to do whatever he needs to win. That's why these guys have been successful. Now, could you envision tempers flaring? You can envision tempers flaring between every driver because of their focus and dedication to winning. Am I worried that will ever get in the way of the friendship here? No. I think these guys have a perspective that is well beyond their years, and I think they recognize that the stuff that happens on the track is left on the track."

That's not to say things haven't gotten a little heated between the teammates from time to time on the race track. "I think during the race sometime, if he's in my way or I'm in his way, we'll be like, 'Man, tell him to move! Don't hold me up like this!' " Bayne said. "But as far as crashing each other and being crazy about it -- we've never crashed each other. We've never gotten into it, really. It's all been good. I'm sure that would be tough if it ever does happen, which is more than likely to happen at some point in our careers when you're racing against each other up front. Something is bound to happen. But I think we understand that our friendship off the track is important, too."

Besides, right now Bayne and Stenhouse have larger concerns -- like Stenhouse finishing off his Nationwide Series championship run. He currently holds a 22-point lead over second-place Elliott Sadler entering Saturday's event at Kansas Speedway. In Daytona, it was Stenhouse's job to offer support to his friend before and after the sport's biggest race. Now, it's Bayne's turn to return the favor as Stenhouse closes in on his first NASCAR title.

"He's pumped up for me to go win this championship. He talks about it all the time," Stenhouse said. "That's cool to have him there as a teammate, as excited about it as I am."

Bayne already can envision the scene in the season finale. "At Homestead, I'm hoping we win the race and he wins the championship, and we'll just park nose to nose and burn the tires off [the cars]," he said. "But yeah, if he wins the championship, and whether we win the race or not, I'll definitely be there and be ready to build him up."

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