By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Winning the Daytona 500 brings its perks, especially for a single-car organization like JTG-Daugherty Racing. Although most of the praise goes to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who won his first NASCAR Cup Series race since July 2017, history was also made in the 65th renewal of “The Great American Race.”
Daugherty became the first African-American owner to win NASCAR’s most prestigious event, but wasn’t around to see Stenhouse win big.
Due to recently having eye surgery 10 days before, the Florida sunlight bothered Daugherty, so in the best interest of himself and others, he left the 2.5-mile superspeedway well before the checkered flag.
“I got a home in Orlando and I couldn’t see while the sun was just in my eyes. Almost like it’s hyper dilated,” Daugherty explained. “Instead of bumping into and knocking everybody down all day, I just went home.”
Once the phone calls and texts kicked into full effect, Daugherty knew something special happened. Others noticed as Daugherty got a standing ovation in at the airport in Orlando. It was a key moment where Daugherty’s humility was apparent as Stenhouse’s win also ended the race team’s winless streak dating back to Watkins Glen in 2014.
Daugherty was more proud of Stenhouse’s patience in which they spoken at length before rolling into “The World Center of Racing.”
“I’ve been talking to Ricky a lot. We talked last month a little bit about being prepared and patient. Have the time to flourish as we go throughout the entire season,” said Daugherty. “He was just very calm when I was talking to him. He had just come from the gym working out and it was just a good start. We were excited and I went down, talked to some of the guys, made sure everybody had everything they needed.”
Known to be super aggressive on the superspeedways that’s drawn some ire from his competitors, Daugherty elaborated how patient Stenhouse was throughout the race-extended 212-lap event.
“Ricky was really patient. Usually he likes to charge to the front and be in the mix all day long. But I just thought he was patient,” Daugherty said of Stenhouse. “We got through those first two stages, we get down to the end of this race and you see him starting to make his move. I’m like, ‘This is great.’
“Normally we’re right in the middle of the scrum the whole time, but he just started working his way towards the front. We had a fast race car that handled very well.”
As the laps wound down and the No. 47 team’s odds of winning increased, Daugherty remembered being in a similar spot last year where a win faded away. A late-race crash meant shattered dreams for everyone in the organization.
Once overtime became a factor into the race, Daugherty knew Stenhouse was in excellent position. With Kyle Larson on his side to push Stenhouse, there was no looking back. Even when Larson ended up getting collected in a violent Turn 1 crash on the last lap.
“(Larson) was gonna be our partner and we were gonna have to restart this thing. I was just saying to myself, ‘Man!’ If we can get out front, I just don’t know if they can wreck us or get to us. I don’t wanna be third, fourth, or fifth. Cause that, that’s just a problem,” said Daugherty.
“Then the restart happens and Ricky does his thing. He waits on his opportunity, he gets by himself. I was like, ‘They’re gonna have a tough time because they’re gonna have to run over us to win this. We’re going down the back stretch and we get going into the corner and all heck breaks loose and Ricky’s out front.
“I’m watching this all at like in slow motion. I say, ‘We’re gonna win this race.’ And then you see it, the caution flags come out and the race is over and we’re leading. We just won the Daytona 500.”
Now with a 500 win under their belt, it’s back to business for everyone in the single-car squad. The Cup Series will head to Auto Club Speedway for the final curtain call of the two-mile configuration.
Another element Daugherty told Stenhouse a month ago is to not press his luck like typically does.
Rather than having him go for 10th when his No. 47 Chevrolet is capable of running no better than 20th, stay there and at least collect obtainable points. Showcase to everyone that Stenhouse is no slouch and can be as good as the sport’s elite.
Especially with the pressure being off Stenhouse, who currently holds the first of 16 playoff spots.
“I think this takes some pressure off him. Being a veteran guy, he can go out and actually use the skills and ability that he has,” said Daugherty. “Instead of over driving maybe a race car that’s not very good that day or not being able to execute when we have a fast race car because he makes a critical mistake.
“There’s four or five times last year at mile and a halfs, we were the fastest race car there, and we end up wrecking that race car for whatever reason. Not paying attention to the right rear tire, over abusing the right rear tire, wearing our stuff out.
“I’m thinking, I’m hoping that we can get past that and have our shots. I mean, we’re gonna be good at Talladega, but I think we’re really good when we show up at Nashville. It could shock some people. We show up at Dover, he’s really good there.
“We’ve got a good recipe for those places to where we can go take a swing at the Hendricks and the Gibbs and Penskes. We can take a swing at him that day and I’m excited. I think there’s an opportunity there.”
Such change in a driver and team can come a long way for a team that would like to go back to a two-car organization in the future. After Sunday’s Daytona 500, a lot of lives were changed and things can only look up from this point forward.
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