Stenhouse Jr, JTG Daugherty Racing have belief again, confident heading into Fontana

The old Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is back. It’s amazing what confidence will do to someone. The driver with three wins in 365 Cup Series starts driving for a team with two wins in 684 races believes that the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season will be a good one.

While they’ll be defined by a win in the Great American Race, they won’t let this be their crowning moment. They genuinely feel like they can be a contender this season and that all starts with belief in one another. Sometimes it takes a fall from the top and the mental fortitude to get back in order to acheive greatness. Not everyone’s path is the same.

Both driver and team had achieved success without each other. However, for both sides, they were short lived. Now, some ask, why will this be different?

You have to go back to see the journey first to show it.

Stenhouse had a tumultuous career with Roush Fenway Racing. He wrecked so many cars early on while racing for them in the Xfinity Series, team owner, Jack Roush, made him work on the cars himself so he could maybe see the value of taking care of the equipment. It took a vote by employees on whether to continue on with him or not.

They never gave up and all voted to keep him.

Stenhouse won back-to-back series championships and moved up to a Cup seat. Four winless seasons left him feeling the effects of losing. Then came a multi-win year in 2017. The confidence was back. He unfortunately followed that up with a pair of winless seasons again. 2 wins in 256 starts at RFR with points finishes of 19th, 27th, 25th, 21st, 13th, 18th and 23rd respectively forced RFR to basically throw him to the curb.

Stenhouse thought he had a multi-year deal left with them through the 2023 season. RFR found a clause to where that wasn’t the case and let him go late in the 2019 silly season cycle. They gave up on him and it hurt his confidence in hismelf even more.

JTG Daugherry Racing had an opening and off Stenhouse went. Prior to Stenhouse’s arrival, the organization went from hiring drivers on the back end of their careers, to winning Watkins Glen in 2014 to a downfall.

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

In 2017, the year 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.

Stenhouse Jr. won the season opening Daytona 500 pole for them in his first race in 2020. Unfortunately, that was the highlight. 3 top 5 finishes and only 4 top 10’s led to a 24th place finish in the final standings. A decline with 1 top 5 and 2 top 10’s were in store in 2021. He was 22nd in points.

The organization decided to scale back to just focus on one car, Stenhouse’s. Unfortunately, that didn’t truly matter much last year.

This was seemingly starting to feel like the end in NASCAR for the Mississippi native. Just 1 more top 5 a year ago with 5 top 10’s left him 26th in points. How much longer would JTG Daugherty Racing put up with these results?

“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.”

Mike Kelley was already with the team to help bring them up to speed. He was Stenhouse Jr’s crew chief with Roush. He stepped in to be Stenhouse Jr’s crew chief again for this season. He sees what the organization has in terms of giving him everything that he needs to win races. He just needs his driver to see that and get his confidence back.

The Geschickter’s woke on Daytona 500 race morning at 3:30 am with a great feeling of what was going to come ahead. So did Kelley, ironically.

“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.”

Stenhouse felt that calming presence and believed again in himself. He overcame a late race speeding penalty to win the Great American Race snapping a 199-race winless drought and giving JTG Daugherty Racing their first win in the last 266 races themselves.

“This is huge for us,” Stenhouse admitted. “I think it was really big for myself. 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.”

Now, the confidence is back and he’s already looking forward to the rest of the season ahead. While some may consider this a fluke win, Stenhouse says that this team is ready to compete.

“Every morning I get up and I put on my shoes at peace and I go out,” Jodi Geschickter 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.”

Stenhouse is anxiously awaiting to get to Fontana to continue this on. He says the strides that this team took between last season to this has him confident in the direction that they’re heading.

“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.”

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.

Now that Stenhouse believes again, he’s heading to a track to where he qualified 10th last year and finished 17th. He did snag a top 10 finish in 2020 though and 12th in 2019. After that it’s to Las Vegas to where he has 3 top 11 finishes in his last four spring starts there.

If he can come out of this first month of the season with finishes to where they think that they can, it really should shape a memorable season for this entire 47 team.

Now, Stenhouse does have some trends again him in terms of going back-to-back to begin the season off with. Matt Kenseth in 2009 was the last driver to win the Daytona 500 and 2nd race of the season a week later. Jeff Gordon was the only other driver to go back-to-back to begin a year in 1997.

Only four total drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the following race in general with (Cale Yarborough in 1977, Richard Petty in 1973) joining them. However, in those years, the Daytona 500 wasn’t the season opening race too.

Since Kenseth’s back-to-back feat in 2009 just three drivers followed that up with a top five even. 7 of the 13 finished outside the top 10 at that.

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