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Cody Kluge Cody Kluge BVM Sports Journalist/Editor

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reflects on Daytona 500: ‘Life is good’

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (BVM) – Prior to Sunday, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had competed in 11 Daytona 500 races. Outside of a top-10 finish in 2014, the “Great American Race” had often created more heartbreak than joy for the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet for JTG Daugherty Racing.

One of the Daytona 500 races that stung the most for Stenhouse Jr. up until this year was in his first season with JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020, a race he was the pole sitter for, only to finish 20th after being involved in a wreck. Another came just last year, as the driver of the No. 47 was leading late before being involved in another wreck that took him out of the race.

However, what remained clear for the three-time Cup Series race winner – one of those which came in the Daytona summer race in 2017 – is that despite the failures, he had what it takes to compete for a win in the Daytona 500. Stenhouse Jr. just needed things to break the right way, and in the 65th running of the “Great American Race,” they finally did.

In what was the longest Daytona 500 in history, Stenhouse Jr., who started 31st, found himself at the front of the pack towards the end. Leading nine previous laps of what had been a relatively clean race, Stenhouse Jr. was in a battle with reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano for the win on Lap 212 during the race’s second overtime. With a big wreck occurring behind the leaders, the caution flag was waved, and Stenhouse Jr.’s car was narrowly in front of Logano’s at the time, giving the veteran driver the biggest win of his NASCAR career.

“Going back and looking at when the caution came out, it was a lot closer than I felt like it was,” Stenhouse Jr. said in an interview with Mike Massaro on BVM Sports’ Cup Connection. “It’s speedway racing, NASCAR racing in general, a game of inches, obviously. We were ahead at the right time.”

In a unique spot at the end with the race finishing under caution, Stenhouse Jr. knew he had the lead, but was worried about how he might have to finish out the race, particularly with his No. 47 car low on fuel.

“I felt confident that we were out front when the caution came out,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “My biggest concern was trying to talk to the team like, ‘Hey, I know we took the white, the race is over, what do we have to do? All I got to do is get back to the start-finish line? What’s the scenario here?’ Because I was close to being out of gas.”

Now a Daytona 500 champion, Stenhouse Jr. has gotten to experience the whirlwind that comes with winning the “Great American Race” over the past week, but he is embracing every minute of it.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “Tired, super excited, a lot of media which has been really fun to help promote our sport, promote the 75th year of NASCAR, and promoting this team, JTG Daugherty Racing. Everybody at the Kroger company, all of our partners, there are so many great things that have come out just the last few days. It’s really fun … Life is good.”

As the lone member of JTG Daugherty Racing, a team owned by Tad and Jodi Geschickter, as well as Gordon Smith and former NBA player Brad Daugherty, Stenhouse Jr. became the first driver from a single-car team to win the Daytona 500 since Trevor Bayne’s shocking victory for the Wood Brothers in 2011. 

While the drivers often get all the love, Stenhouse Jr. is quick to credit the incredible effort his team has given throughout the offseason to help him earn the biggest victory of his career.

“I think it’s just a lot of hard work,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “It takes all different aspects of an organization to be able to win a race like the Daytona 500. You gotta have great partners, and we do in Kroger, Cottonelle, all the brands that are on our car throughout the season.

“So that’s just part of it, and then you got these race team guys … The hard work that they put in, they’re grinding. They were working on Saturdays this offseason making sure everything was perfect going down to the ‘Great American Race,’ our Super Bowl. It’s just amazing to get them in victory lane. To see how excited these crew guys were when I got back to the race shop today, that’s what it’s all about.”

Another big reason for Stenhouse Jr. getting back into victory lane is crew chief Mike Kelley. In 2011 and 2012, Stenhouse Jr. won back-to-back Xfinity Series championships with Kelley as his crew chief. Kelley also served as the 35-year-old’s crew chief when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing in 2014, and has continued to work with Stenhouse Jr. in various roles over the past decade. 

Prior to that, Kelley got his start in NASCAR working with Ernie Irvan, and was the crew chief for Michael Waltrip in his 2001 Daytona 500 victory. Also a member of Kurt Busch’s Cup Series championship team in 2004, Kelley had considered returning to a crew chief role the past few years, but only if the right opportunity came along.

“Luckily, I got an offer, we started talking about it late last season, to get paired back up with Ricky,” Kelley said on Cup Connection. “That was one of a few opportunities that I would think about. To get paired back up with him and roll into Daytona, to race that race with him and come out on top … I don’t know that I’ll ever put it into words, and I’m okay with that.”

With Kelley back as his crew chief in 2023, Stenhouse Jr. has seen a new sense of belief and confidence from both himself and his team.

“I feel like he believes in me more than I believe in myself, and he does that with all these crew guys,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “I feel like that’s a sign of a really good coach, a really good team leader, and that’s something that crew chiefs need. The cars are similar now, it’s how you get the most out of your people. Mike believes in every single one of us here, he’s made us believe in each other. 

“This is basically the same group of guys we had here last year, but the offseason just felt different. I felt like everybody was more prepared, more focused and more confident going into the season.”

Instilling that new found confidence in both Stenhouse Jr. and his team was an offseason mantra that Kelley came up with: “We believe.” In fact, Kelley left a note on the roll bar of the No. 47 car before the race with those very words in what has become a signature moment of the team’s victory.

“One of the last things I did was I asked one of the guys for a Sharpie, and I just tore a piece of orange tape out of the bag, and I just wrote, ‘We believe,’” Kelley said. “I just wanted him to know that this group, 45 people strong, believed in his ability and what we were doing as a group. All offseason, that was our mantra.

“I just wanted to reassure him that today, for the biggest race of our year, he was not [alone]. He had all of us, and we believed in him.”

A more confident team that believes anything is possible surrounding the No. 47 car could be a scary thought for the rest of NASCAR in 2023. Already securing a spot in the playoffs thanks to Sunday’s win at Daytona International Speedway, Stenhouse feels he and his team will be more relaxed, but will also look to remain competitive.

“Probably a little more relaxed, which I think for me can probably be a good thing,” Stenhouse Jr. said about his approach going forward. “You’re not so on edge.

“We are going to act as if we don’t have that in our back pocket right now. We want to prepare, we want to act like that moving forward … We are excited, yes, right now we are in the playoffs. But there are still 25 races to go and we gotta focus on those.”

Stenhouse Jr.’s victory on Sunday is a memory that will last a lifetime for both he and his crew members. However, it’s not the only thing he wants to accomplish in what has the makings of a special 2023 season for the man who can now call himself a Daytona 500 champion.

“I feel like that is going to help us just enjoy the process,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “We’ve got a lot of things to accomplish this year. We won a race, that’s checked off. We want to win another one.”