Not all that long ago, JTG Daugherty Racing was struggling to make it, now, they’re Daytona 500 champions and the path it took to get here

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the longest Daytona 500 in the 65 year history of the race. Before we get to the now, you have to rewind back to the beginning to fully appreciate the upset win in Sunday’s Great American Race and why this could be the start of a breakout season for the JTG Daugherty Racing camp.

One could consider the JTG Daugherty Racing team as the little team that could and have overachieved in their win in front of a capacity crowd on Sunday from the World Center of Racing.

They started off in 2006 as just JTG Racing and had a partnership with the Wood Brothers. They tried to branch out on their on for the 2007 NASCAR Cup Series season on a part-time basis.

Their first race that they attempted to show up with the No. 47 Ford was in Las Vegas. They hired Ken Schrader. They weren’t fast enough and a DNQ. They didn’t try again until that Fall at Kansas with Jon Wood. Another DNQ.

They waited almost a full year before coming back. They hired Marcos Ambrose to run Indy and did so with a new co-owner, former NBA player Brad Daugherty. He’d make their first Cup event and finished 22nd. They skipped the next race before showing up at Watkins Glen with Ambose again. The road course ringer finished an impressive third. It was downhill from there. Four more appearances with a best result of 32nd.

2009 they’d run full-time with a technical alliance with Michael Waltrip Racing. As a result, they swapped the Ford’s for Toyota’s. Ambrose had 4 top five finishes and 7 top 10’s in their first foray into a full campaign.

They came back in 2010 but the stats diminished. Just a pair of top fives and five top 10’s.

Ambrose departed for Richard Petty Motorsports which paved nearly three years for Bobby Labonte. Labonte finished fourth in his debut in the 2011 Daytona 500. That was his only top five in 99 starts with the team however. He also only had four top 10’s in that span as well. AJ Allmendinger came onboard for nine races that season as he had a best finish of 10th at the Glen.

2014 the team made some changes. From Toyota’s now to Chevrolet’s and this time with Allmendinger on a full-time scale. He’d run five years with the organization and even game them a win in that first year together in Watkins Glen.

Unfortunately, that win never materialized to anything bigger. In 144 starts between 2014 and 2018, Allmendinger had just six top five finishes and 27 top 10’s.

In 2017, the brought forth a second team. 0 top fives but 4 top 10’s ensued. In 2018, the second car had a pair of top 10’s, each being in the top five.

2019 sparked more changes. Rookie Ryan Preece came to replace Allmendinger in the 47. 2020 they lost Chris Buescher but hired Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and placed him in the 47 and moved Preece over to the 37.

That lasted two seasons before JTG had to scale back a year ago back to just a single entry.

Heading into the 2023 season, JTG Daugherty had just one win, 22 total top five finishes and 74 top 10’s. Now, they’re Daytona 500 champions.

It’s a testament to never give up and work harder and harder even in the worst times. This group never wavered. They never gave in. This win in NASCAR’s Super Bowl was a byproduct of this.

“This is huge for us,” Stenhouse admitted. “But now for us to kind of take that next step, obviously this is our second season with this new car, and we’ve got more help from Chevrolet. We’ve been in the simulator way more in this off-season than we were all of last year.”

Stenhouse thought he had a contact with his past team at Roush through 2023. He found out the hard way he didn’t. They cut him loose after a second straight winless season in 2019.

His management quickly found him a new home. JTG Daugherty Racing. However, a driver riding a 2+ year winless streak and joining a team on their own drought themselves could in theory signify the backward side of Stenhouse’s career.

Stenhouse went winless in his first three seasons at JTG Daugherty. That stacked with two winless years prior to joining them meant he hasn’t won in 5 years.

Now, that long drought is over.

Co-owner, Jodi Geschickter said that it wasn’t from a lack of effort that took them over eight years between wins.

“Every morning I get up and I put on my shoes at peace and I go out,” she said. “But make no mistake, this is a battle. The competition in this series is fierce and it’s serious, and we are blessed to have the partners that we have and the sponsors that we have. But it’s a battle and it’s a fight, and it’s hard.

“It’s not for lack of effort. We’ve come really close, so I try not to get our hopes up. Tonight when we were close and it was the last lap and there’s another caution, I just think, dear Lord, please, no. We need it. We need it, and we need it now. We need it tonight. We need it to happen. And it did.

“We work hard. The guys do their jobs. We’re prepared. We’re prepared every day. We have the support of Chevrolet and we have sponsors that stick with us, and we’re truly blessed. I’m just happy to be here.

“Doesn’t really answer the question, but it’s how I’m feeling right now.”

The team behind the scenes took the right steps to continue this grind. From bringing in Stenhouse for 2020. To signing Mike Kelley in 2021, to scaling back to one car in 2022 and to this season opening win in 2023, it’s all part of the process.

“That was one thing I think in 2020 when I came here in 2021 and the roles that I’ve had behind the scenes working on cars and working on things at that group,” Kelley said. “100 percent I would agree with you that they haven’t fulfilled the potential by no means of any one person or any one thing.

“That’s when they asked me last year to do this, that was one of the reasons why I jumped at it, because I saw the potential. I think for the first time in your 28-year history last year, they had five top 5s in a row or something like that. But at the same time, we finished 27th or 28th in the points. Those two shouldn’t go together. You shouldn’t have career milestones this high but also finish where they did.”

Kelley said that this team is all in to win. They provide him with everything that he needs to build fast race cars.

“Since I’ve been there for three or four years, not once have they said no,” he continued. “We have a state-of-the-art facility; we have CNC shops; we have Hawkeye machines; we have the parts and pieces.”

Kelley also said that was just one part. The other part was getting Stenhouse to believe in himself again and getting the right people around him to believe in him too.

“Yeah, I think it was really big for myself,” Stenhouse said of this win at Daytona, snapping a 199-race winless streak that dates back to this track in July 2017. “Not winning since 2017, having struggles, ups and downs, to have somebody like Mike, who when he took over the reins as soon as the season was over, it was, hey, I know you can still get this done. 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.

“I felt like his leadership throughout the whole shop is still not even — yeah, we won here at the Daytona 500, but I still think the fruits of that is going to come later on from his leadership in the shop and making sure — most of these guys that we have are the same guys we had last year. But he believes in myself more than I do, I think, and that’s huge.

“I feel like that’s what separates crew chiefs these days, is that team aspect and leading your guys and getting the most out of them. We all have similar equipment, and that wasn’t always the case in this sport, so now it’s little nuances like that that help propel a race team forward.

“We all felt confident this off-season, but it’s special to do it with Mike. We accomplished so much together. We’ve gone through ups and downs. He’s been in the sport a long time. He’s a Cup champion as a car chief with Kurt Busch. I think he’s won this race before, not as a crew chief, obviously, and our Nationwide Series Championships and race wins were something that we’re super proud of.

“But we know those were 10 years ago and we need to make some new memories.”

Kelley said he knows that Stenhouse has it in him and always has. He saw it a decade ago competing in the Xfinity Series. If you give Stenhouse a good car and can build his confidence up, he can win in it. So, with Kelley believing in what JTG Daugherty has given him, he decided to leave a special note in Stenhouse’s car early this morning to serve as a reminder that he believes in him.

“This morning when I woke up, it was at 3:30, and I’ve been coming here for a long time,” he said. “I think it’s like my 27th year coming here, and I’ve been fortunate to win the 500 one time before.

“But just something this morning felt different. Kind of how our week started. I kept telling myself, if we just keep working on our car and keep believing in ourselves, maybe something will work out.

“When I woke up this morning I told myself – and this is something I used to do for Ricky when we had tough days in the Xfinity car – I just wrote him a note that only he would see, and it was on top of the roll bar in front of him, and it said, “we believe.”

“That’s been our team’s motto all off-season is we believe. We’re a small team. We’re not a super powerhouse team. We’re small. I think there’s 40, 45 employees that work in our shop every day. But I have 45 people that believe in what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to get people to believe in Ricky Stenhouse again. We’re trying to get people to believe in myself and the vision that we have.

“That’s all it was, a simple note on a piece of duct tape that I wrote that said “we believe, and we believe today,” and I stuck it up there above his head.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 19: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., driver of the #47 Kroger/Cottonelle Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2023 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Believe they did. Even with a speeding penalty, the stars aligned to get Stenhouse the win.

Stenhouse Jr. went from 24th at the end of the first stage to fourth in Stage 2. He was in the hunt the rest of way until he was caught speeding on his final pit stop on Lap 178.

That could have been the dagger.

“Once we sped on pit road, kind of thought our race was over, but felt like the good Lord was watching out for us,” Stenhouse said.

However, a seven-car melee in Turn 2 brought out the fifth caution of the day which allowed Stenhouse to be able to stay on the lead lap. He’d restart 22nd though in a race to where track position was crucial.

“I was serving the penalty, and then all of a sudden had a big wreck right there kind of where we were running, getting in Turn 1,” Stenhouse continued. “That gave us a second chance, and I knew that my team was — Tuesday’s meeting was not going to be very good because we preached all off-season about not beating ourselves, and there I went speeding on pit road, just trying to get — really wasn’t trying to get everything out of it, but got a little too much.

“So I felt like once the caution came out I really had to kind of put my elbows up and get back to the front to give us another shot to win so I at least could tell my guys that we had a shot to win.”

Stenhouse wouldn’t get denied. His No. 47 Chevrolet rocketed up to sixth shortly after the race would get restarted and was back in the race again for the win.

While some may call this a fluke, it’s truly not. All three of Stenhouse’s wins have come on superspeedways, 2 of which at Daytona. He notes that he won the 2020 pole here with this team. The 47 car had 3 straight Daytona 500 top 10’s prior to that pole.

It was just bad luck, pushing too hard or being in the wrong place at the wrong time that kept what we saw out of them on Sunday from happening.

Now it has though and it’s a much-needed boost for this team. JTG Daugherty believes they can win. Kelley believes he has what he needs to build race winning cars. Stenhouse believes he can win again and the team lived up to showing that they’ve never stopped believing in Ricky.

“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.”

Her husband, Tad, added that they have 18 corporate partners and there are not many drivers in this series that would do the work that Ricky Stenhouse does every day behind the scenes that no one sees. From appearances in front of grocery stores to trips to corporate headquarters. He’s a workhorse, and someone that believes in you that hard, you’re going to keep believing back in them, too.

“We don’t quit,” Jodi chimed in. “We’re tenacious. We don’t quit. We dig in.

“I had a very strong family background that taught me that and they instilled that in me. You do have to raise questions in your mind and say, is this the right path. You have to be smart about it.

“But you just don’t quit. You get the information, you try to make good decisions, and you just don’t quit.”

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