By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It felt overdue.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Mike Kelley and JTG Daugherty Racing had shown up to the Daytona 500 with better cars than this one. Arguably, they had shown up with the best car in both the 2020 and 2021 runnings of the Great American Race with nothing to show for it.
Such is superspeedway racing.
Then came the arrival of the Next Gen platform in 2022, something that easily could have taken away whatever pace they had found with the old platform and seemed to once they qualified a second off the pace in time trials.
While they didn’t have the exceptional overall speed from previous seasons, they again found themselves in the lead pack at the end, before ultimately crashing out.
So, it comes with a degree of irony that the No. 47 finally broke through four years into their annual pilgrimage to Daytona, but only when it seemed as if it was the worst of four really good cars from a pure speed standpoint.
So too is superspeedway racing.
And yet, Kelley, woke up on Sunday morning with incredible conviction that they were going to win. The first thing he did upon unloading the car was place a piece of duct tape on the roll bar above the driver compartment so that only Stenhouse could see it upon climbing into the car.
It read, ‘we believe, and we believe today.’ This was something he used to do during their tenure together at Roush Fenway Racing in the Xfinity Series when Kelley just wanted to speak to his driver in the most personal of ways.
But really, if there were any other days to believe with this much conviction, wouldn’t it have been all those other years after sitting on the pole in 2020 or having an equally strong car during Speedweeks in 2021?
They qualified 35th on Wednesday night.
“When we raced (the Duel) on Thursday night, I felt like we had a decent car, maybe a really good car” Kelley said. “By Friday (practice,) I knew we had an exceptional car. I could look at the data, I could look at enough stuff, I could visibly see it.
“I thought we had a great race car by the end of the week. That’s attributed to hard work. As hard as we got our teeth kicked-in during qualifying, it just pushed us harder.”
For his part, Stenhouse didn’t read into the qualifying results at all on Wednesday. While it was easier to look at going from 24th to 35th in Daytona 500 qualifying year-over-year, Stenhouse looked more at going from a second off the pole to seven-tenths off it.
“I said, ‘guys, we’re closer to the lead pack cars than what we were last year, and we were leading this race with five or six to go.’ I said, ‘we have a car capable of doing that.’
“Like I said, we made adjustments that gave up a little handling and ride quality for a little bit of speed, and I felt like in our Chevy draft on Friday night, I felt super confident in the car. Maybe it wasn’t the fastest, but I felt like I drafted well, it handled good enough for me, and I feel like that was always our strength. We had that.”
And he needed it, slowly working through the field over the first two stages with a rules package that doesn’t make it easy to complete passes in the draft, finishing the first two stages 24th and 4th.
And then came the self-inflicted wound, a pit road speeding penalty that again trapped the No. 47 in the back of the field, but also kept Stenhouse out of literally the same group of cars that were involved in the crash.
Such is superspeedway racing, again.
“I think to myself, man, is that a sign,” said Kelley. “Was that something bigger than us that put us on pit road, because where that wreck happened was right where we were running, and I said, I’m just going to accept it for what it is and use it to our advantage.”
It gave Stenhouse a figurative second wind.
“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 said.
And then he looked like every bit of the controlled aggressive superspeedway racer that won with Roush, contended the past several years, and drove it inside the top-5 approaching the final laps.
It’s potentially fair to say that they weren’t going to win the race without the shenanigans at the end. Kyle Busch looked poised to win the race straight-up with a push from Austin Dillon in a RCR versus RFK showdown.
But both of the cautions that set-up overtime restarts played out perfectly for Stenhouse and Company.
“I was hoping we were going to get back to the white and we didn’t,” he said. “Big wreck behind us, and again, a perfect scenario for me.”
The second overtime restart allowed him to take the lead, but he was a sitting duck from Joey Logano behind him, the final caution coming just before the defending champion could overtake him.
It sealed the deal.
“Everything played out perfectly for us at the end of that,” Stenhouse said. “It’s the Daytona 500. It’s a long race. You’re going to have good parts and bad parts, but we just kept pushing through.”
All of this to say that having the best car in the field, which was the case in 2020 and 2021 means a lot. Having a really good car in 2022 meant a lot. But having a really good car in 2023 meant more when they had the fortune to support it.
That and a whole lot of faith from Kelley that this is the year all the elements would be in their favor.
“This morning when I woke up, it was at 3:30 and I’ve been coming here for a long time,” Kelley said. “I think it’s like my 27th year coming here and I’ve been fortunate to win the 500 one time before.”
That was in 2001 with Michael Waltrip as car chief at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
“But just something this morning felt different,” he said. “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.”
It literally all worked out, such is speedway racing once in a blue moon.