The last three Daytona 500s have produced surprise winners with the most recent version doing exactly that when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was deemed by NASCAR Cup Series officials as the victor when they ruled that the JTG-Daugherty Chevrolet was ahead of the pack when a race-ending yellow flag waved. It was only the third career win for the Olive Branch, Mississippi driver with both his other triumphs having come back in 2017 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing.
Stenhouse’s JTG-Daugherty team had only won one other Cup race prior to last Sunday with driver A.J. Allmendinger in 2014 on the road course at Watkins Glen International. That year, by the way, was the only time this organization has made the NASCAR Playoffs.
The 35-year-old Stenhouse began driving for JTG-Daugherty at the start of the 2020 campaign.
The 2022 winner of the ‘Great American Race’ was not necessarily shocking in that driver Austin Cindric was piloting a car for the powerful Team Penske organization. But it was surprising in that it was the rookie driver’s first career win. But because of the team he drove for, that race did not have the underdog characteristic of the 2021 and 2023 versions.
In 2021, Michael McDowell was in the right place at the right time when the lead cars crashed out on the last lap in much the same way as Stenhouse’s situation this year. Like JTG-Daugherty, the win by Front Row Motorsports was surprising in that the driver and the organization had few wins in their history.
The key for operations such as JTG-Daugherty and Front Row Motorsports is not only that they won NASCAR’s biggest race but how they used that victory to improve their status within the sport.
Remember back to 2021. McDowell and FRM were able to parlay that triumph into further success. The No. 34 Ford scored top-10 finishes in the two races following Daytona and wound up with a total of five such results over the course of the season ultimately making the NASCAR Playoffs before finishing 16th in the final standings.
There is no guarantee of making the Playoffs just because of one win. because last season had 19 different winners, there were drivers and teams who found victory lane during the campaign but did not have a shot at claiming the title over the final ten races as the Playoff field is limited to 16 drivers.
JTG-Daugherty crew chief Mike Kelly believes the team he leads is in the process of developing a winning culture and that there could be more to come following Sunday’s big win.
“I’m not sitting here going to tell you that we’re going to go win California, but I do believe we will run well at California,” Kelly told the media after the Daytona 500. “Ricky ran well there last year. I do believe there will be races if we finish and execute, we’ll be back in this room this year. We’ve had great meetings. We’ve changed up some of the ways we do things in house. We’ve changed up our engineering staff. We had a team meeting for the first time in a long time before the race. We are doing the things that I believe lay the foundation to get where you want to go.”
A significant difference between JTG-Daugherty and Front Row is that the operation co-owned by Tad & Jodi Geschickter along with former NBA star Brad Daugherty is a single-car team while the Bob Jenkins-owned FRM organization is not only a multi-car Cup Series team but also a championship-winning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series operation. Theoretically, at least, FRM should have more data to draw from with more cars on the track.
Kelly insists that if his team does not succeed, it will not be because of the owners. According to the pit boss of the No. 47 car, they are committed to winning.
“This team provides us with everything we need,” Kelly pointed out. “I’ll say that again. Since I’ve been there for three or four years, not once have they said no. We have a state-of-the-art facility, we have CNC shops, we have Hawkeye machines, we have the parts and pieces.”
That change in culture which Kelly believes could lead to more wins is evident in how the organization approaches its daily business.
“We are taking every day serious,” he declared. “We show up at 6:30 in the morning like every other race team here. I’m not telling you anything you don’t see. We’re just seeing it with 40 people. It’s easier, sometimes that’s easier. If you try and turn a big ship and I’ve got to get permission to change this on a race car, I’ve got to go through a production staff and I’ve got to ask this guy to ask this guy to ask this guy.”
Simply believing they can accomplish their goals is much of the battle for JTG-Daugherty Racing.
“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.”
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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