DAYTONA BEACH — Ricky Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win ignited an idling career and rekindled a long-standing partnership, but the surprising victory also spotlighted a continued seismic shift in a sport.
When the No. 47 Chevrolet crossed the finish line Sunday evening, Stenhouse ended a five-year winless stretch and delivered a team co-owned by a Black man and a woman the first victory during NASCAR’s premier event.
The 35-year-old Mississippian was able to see the significance through the deluge of confetti, celebrations and personal accolades.
“We’ve got a lot of diversity on our race team, throughout the garage, and it’s cool to have two on our race team and put them in Victory Lane here at the Daytona 500,” Stenhouse said. “It’s super special, and NASCAR is leading the way in a big way. It’s cool to play a small part of getting them to Victory Lane.”
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Stenhouse picked up his third Cup Series win and first since the 2017 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The victory was his first with JTG Daugherty Racing, owned by former NBA player Brad Daugherty, along with Tad and Jodi Geschickter.
The single-car team, the first to win the Daytona 500 since Wood Brothers Racing with Trevor Bayne in 2011, stuck with Stenhouse during some fallow periods on the track.
“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,” Jodi Geschickter said. “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.”
Yet, no one believed in Stenhouse’s ability like veteran crew chief Mike Kelley.
Kelley resumed the role with Stenhouse during the offseason. The two men pushed to rediscover their magic shared during back-to-back Xfinity Series titles in 2011-12 for Jack Roush Racing and avoid a repeat of their one Cup Series pairing — a 2014 season with one top-five finish in 36, but also a seventh-place at the Daytona 500.
“We just weren’t as good as we needed to be, and I wasn’t ready,” Kelley said.
But when he woke up Sunday, the 51-year-old had a feeling and his driver were in for a big day.
As a sign of support for Stenhouse, Kelley scribbled a simple, straightforward message on duct tape and attached to the car’s roll bar about his driver’s head.
“‘We believe,’” Kelley recalled. “That’s been our motto the whole offseason — that we believe.”
Sunday began with little indication either man would factor in the race’s outcome.
Kelley, who hails from St. Petersburg, was in first race as crew chief and Stenhouse had been in NASCAR’s wilderness, recording two top 5s in 72 Cup races the past two seasons.
The No. 47 car won the 2020 Daytona 500 pole and displayed speed again in 2021. This time, Stenhouse qualified 35th in the 40-car field.
Stenhouse was quick to note when he qualified 24th in 2022 he was a full second off the pole, but just .75 for Sunday’s race. He then led 16 laps and was in the mix until a crash on Lap 194.
“I said, we have a car capable of doing that,” Stenhouse said.
Kelley and Co. made adjustments to handling while picking up some speed. Stenhouse noticed the difference during Friday’s drafting practice.
“I felt super confident in the car,” he said.
“We covered it up and we didn’t practice Saturday,” he said.
Stenhouse was ready to show the No. 47′s improvements when the opportunity appeared late in the race.
The winning move occurred before a wreck during the initial overtime when he passed eventual runner-up Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford Mustang on the backstretch before Austin Dillon lost control of his car to cause a massive wreck.
The multi-car pile-up led to the first of three cautions during the double-overtime event that required a record 212 laps and 530 miles to decide. Stenhouse, Logano and third-place finisher Christopher Bell were in the clear when a crash triggered by Kyle Larson elicited another yellow flag.
“I was worried when we took that last restart,” Kelley said. “But I believed in Ricky’s abilities.”
Stenhouse’s .128 margin of victory was the third-narrowest in the past 10 Daytona 500s. For a moment, many believed Logano was the winner.
“At first I wasn’t positive that we had won, and I wasn’t going to celebrate until I heard it in my ear,” Kelley said. “And then then you just don’t believe it. You’re like, man, this is killing me.
“This is a dream come true.”
Kelley has served myriad roles during his NASCAR career. He was car chief for Michael Waltrip during his 2001 win when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died during a tragic Turn 4 crash. Kelley served in the same role for during Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship season.
Plenty of hard times balanced out the success. Kelley shared some with Stenhouse as the two men formed a deep connection.
Kelley recalled the two men nearly wrestling after a disagreement at Bristol. There were lighter times, too. When all the rooms were taken in a house in Michigan rented for the race crew, Kelley and Stenhouse bunked together.
“We literally joke about it all the time, that’s the only man I had to share a bed with is Ricky Stenhouse Jr.,” Kelly. “So maybe that’s part of it.”
Stenhouse and Kelley’s bond has been further strengthened by the equally unique JTG Daugherty Racing ownership group.
The Geschickters have stayed the course with a team formed in 1995. Some tough times tested them, including the pandemic that strained their sponsorship with Cottonelle during a shortage.
“They’re like, we can’t make enough toilet paper to put on the shelves, much less do promotions,” Tad Geschickter recalled. “There was a lot of back and forth and people wanting to change contracts, and it was a tough two years. When it gets lean like that after 28, 29 years of doing it, you start wondering: ‘Are we going to be able to turn on the lights in a year?’”
Daugherty was a 7-foot All-ACC center at North Carolina and NBA All-Star who grew up a NASCAR fan. In 2008, he joined JTK Racing.
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But the 57-year-old had to leave the track Sunday because of irritation caused by recent eye surgery.
Jodi Geschickter said he didn’t missed Stenhouse’s win or the chance to chide fellow North Carolina Tar Heel Michael Jordan, now co-owner of 23XI team with NASCAR star Denny Hamlin.
“I talked to him for a few minutes and he said that he and Michael Jordan are already talking trash,” Jodi said.
After the longest day in Daytona 500 history, Stenhouse recalled the kind words of Kelley during the offseason. The show of support ultimately carried the two men reach Victory Lane together.
“It was, ‘Hey, I know you can still get this done,’” Stenhouse recalled. “‘We’ve just got to give you the right opportunities. We know if we give you cars capable of running up front, you can do that.’
“We’ve proven that.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.