Column: Stenhouse Jr. and JTG get breakout Daytona 500 win

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — One victory in 28 years was all tiny JTG Daugherty Racing had to show for the time, sweat and money — so much money — the team had poured into trying to build a winning NASCAR organization.

The team owned by Tad and Jodi Geschickter, as well as former NBA player Brad Daugherty, entered Season 29 still committed to a driver stuck in a losing streak that stretched nearly six years.

But they believed in Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and so did the sponsors on the No. 47 Chevrolet, which includes grocery chain Kroger, a JTG partner for more than a decade. The trick was rebuilding Stenhouse’s confidence and returning him to the level of driver who won a pair of Xfinity Series championships at the start of his NASCAR career.

Would a Daytona 500 win do the trick?

Certainly so.

Stenhouse scored just the third Cup victory of his career by winning the longest Daytona 500 in history. He won Sunday night in double overtime, under caution, to snap a losing streak that spanned 2,060 days and 199 races.

He did it with crew chief Mike Kelley, who took over leading the team during the offseason, in a reunion for the pair. Kelley was Stenhouse’s crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing for his Xfinity titles and spent one season as his Cup crew chief before stepping back into a support role the last seven seasons.

Kelley’s return to the top has been stabilizing for Stenhouse.

“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,’” Stenhouse said. “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 felt confident this offseason, 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. We need to make some new memories.”

Stenhouse celebrated the win by scaling the fence at Daytona International Speedway — the Superman move created by four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. Once the 35-year-old from Olive Branch, Mississippi, reached the top, he hung and did a pair of pullups before climbing back down to collect the checkered flag. Stenhouse’s only other two Cup wins came in 2017.

Stenhouse then packed up his replica version of the Harley J. Earl Trophy for a late-night trip to a Daytona Beach-area Waffle House, where he sat with his new hardware on the table and wore a paper crown to mark his achievement.

For the Geschickters, the couple now will bring back to their North Carolina race shop only their second NASCAR trophy. And it happens to be the most important trophy in the sport and came in the opening race of NASCAR’s 75th celebratory season.

JTG is the first single-car team since The Wood Brothers Racing in 2011 to win the Daytona 500, Jodi Geschickter is only the second female car owner to win the Daytona 500 and Daughtery is the first Black owner to be part of a winning Daytona effort.

Daugherty had to leave Sunday’s race early after sponsor obligations because the bright sun was bothering the lingering effects of recent eye surgery. But when his car went to victory lane, Jodi Geschickter said, Daugherty wasted no time reaching out to Michael Jordan, who like Daugherty is a part-owner of a NASCAR team.

“He said that he and Michael Jordan are already talking trash,” she said. “I’m not sure what was said, but there have been conversations.”

The win was such a remarkable breakthrough for JTG, which in 2017 expanded to a two-car team, only to have to contract back to one car last season when it didn’t secure a charter for Ryan Preece. He elected to sit out the season and JTG has entered this year with just Stenhouse for a second consecutive season.

The ownership and sponsors could have bailed on Stenhouse at any time, and the sponsors could have bailed on winless JTG, as well. But that’s not how the Geschickters run their business and they haven’t been doing this nearly three decades to just give up.

“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.”

Added her husband: “We have 18 corporate partners. There are not many drivers in this series that would do the work that Ricky Stenhouse does every day behind the scenes.

“Appearances in front of grocery stores to trips to corporate headquarters,” Tad Geschickter said. “He’s a workhorse, and someone that believes in you that hard, you’re going to keep believing back in them.”

JTG and Stenhouse put the work in, understanding they are up against the biggest and best in NASCAR for 38 weekends a year. Stenhouse, who with the Daytona 500 win qualified for the playoffs for just the second time in his career, may not be a title contender but he proved Sunday night that JTG is headed in the right direction.

“Every morning I get up and I put on my shoes at peace and I go out. But make no mistake, this is a battle. The competition in this series is fierce and it’s serious,” Jodi Geschickter said. “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.

“We work hard. The guys do their jobs. We’re prepared. We’re prepared everyday. We don’t quit. We’re tenacious. We dig in. You get the information, you try to make good decisions, and you just don’t quit.”

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports




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