DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Every Daytona 500 has a defining moment. Some have a defining word.
The word for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Believe.
Crew chief Mike Kelley penned “We Believe! TODAY” on a piece of fluorescent orange tape he stuck to the roll bar that sits above Stenhouse’s windshield ahead of Sunday’s Daytona 500. Their No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet stormed to the win in the 65th edition of the Great American Race, Stenhouse’s third career Cup Series victory.
The 2023 season serves as a reunion year for Kelley and Stenhouse, a duo that claimed back-to-back Xfinity Series championships together in 2011 and 2012 at RFK Racing (then known as Roush Fenway Racing).
Kelley has continued to help Stenhouse throughout his Cup career, churning as crew chief at RFK during the 2013 season and working closely on his team. Stenhouse’s only prior premier victories came in 2017, winning at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring in addition to the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on July 1 at Daytona.
Along the way, many doubted Stenhouse, who has released from his Roush contract in 2019 in favor of Chris Buescher.
Kelley never gave up.
That carried into race-day morning when Kelley woke up at 3:30 a.m. ET.
“Something this morning felt different,” Kelley said after the victory. “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 offseason 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.”
Stenhouse affirmed two things Sunday: Kelley’s messaging and why that in-house belief was critical.
“Not winning since 2017, having struggles, ups and downs,” Stenhouse reflected, “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.’
“Yeah, we won here at the Daytona 500, but I still think the fruits of that are 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 me more than I do, I think, and that‘s huge.”
The result after Sunday’s momentous triumph seals Stenhouse forever as a Daytona 500 champion.