DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – You’ve seen a version of this movie scene before.
A NASCAR Cup driver whipping his stock car through the Daytona International Speedway infield, his crew members rushing to meet him as the “Days of Thunder” theme song plays over the track’s PA system.
Meanwhile family members, friends and sponsor reps scream their faces off or weep uncontrollably.
All of this transpired as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. began celebrating his win Sunday (Feb. 19) in the 65th running of the Daytona 500.
Likely the most emotional person in the JTG Daugherty Racing’s pit box wasn’t anyone related to Stenhouse.
Kiana Smith, a PR person for the No. 47 team and daughter of team co-owner Gordon Smith, was one letting their emotions out through tears in between hugs.
“It’s the best birthday present ever,” Smith told team co-owner Jodi Geschickter.
Smith, who has been with the team for just over a year, turned 20 on Sunday.
But that wasn’t the only reason she was overcome with emotion.
She remembered how the team “came so close last year.”
Stenhouse remembered, too.
In the final moments before he walked out to the starting grid on pit road, the JTG Daugherty Racing driver re-watched the end of the 2022 Daytona 500.
In the footage, Stenhouse would have seen himself lead 15 of the last 24 laps, only to be wrecked thanks to an ill-timed push from Brad Keselowski as the leaders exited turn 4 with six laps to go.
It was arguably one of Stenhouse’s best shots at a NASCAR Cup win since 2017 and his team’s best chance at its second Cup Series win.
“I told my guys this offseason coming into this week, if we can get in that same position again I would take it, and hopefully things [would work] out a little bit better,” Stenhouse said.
After climbing into his No. 47 Chevrolet, the Mississippi native at some point saw a a special message.
It was written on a piece of duct tape and placed on the top of the roll bar in front of Stenhouse’s seat.
It simply read, “we believe! today”
It was placed there by Mike Kelley, the crew chief for Stenhouse during his two Xfinity Series championships in 2011 and 2012 with Roush Fenway Racing and who has reunited with Stenhouse for 2023.
Kelley had woken up at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning.
“Something this morning felt different,” Kelley recalled. “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.”
The message reflected the motto the No. 47 team had adopted in the offseason.
“We’re a small team,” Kelley said. “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.”
Said Stenhouse: “He believes in myself more than I do, I think, and that’s huge.”
When it comes to superspeedways – specifically Daytona – Stenhouse has some baggage, good and bad.
It was where he earned his second career Cup win in the 2017 summer race.
In the second stage of the July 2018 race, it was contact from Stenhouse that resulted in Busch wrecking out of the race while running second.
In the aftermath, Busch would call Stenhouse a “waste of space.”
It didn’t end there.
In the years since his first two superspeedway triumphs, Stenhouse developed a negative reputation – and nicknames like “Wrecky Stenhouse” – for an aggressive racing style that may or may not have resulted in multiple crashes like the one in 2018.
Stenhouse acknowledged “I’ve put myself in some bad spots throughout my career.”
“Obviously, you’re going to have haters everywhere, and when you have somebody at the time like Kyle Busch getting out and bashing you, that’s difficult to overcome,” Stenhouse said.
Stenhouse observed that the faster his cars are, the more he can take care of them and still run close to the front.
“Something I’ve always tried to do, which is at some times an expense, is try and take a car and try and get way more out of it than what’s there,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like that’s my job to do as a racecar driver, is to get the most speed out of a racecar that you can, but also in this sport you’ve got to take care of it and you can’t just leave it all out there every single race.”
At the end of the longest Daytona 500 ever – 212 laps – 16 cars, including Busch’s, wound up in the garage due to wrecks, but none as a result of actions taken by Stenhouse.
Instead, Stenhouse fulfilled his promise to his team and the No. 47 was left relatively unscathed in victory lane and with a berth in the playoffs.
“I think we’ll do a better job of kind of setting our realistic expectations each week,” Stenhouse said. “If we feel like 15th is where we need to be that given week, then that’s where I’m going to try and get the car to and not try and get it to 10th or fifth like I tend to do.
He added: “I’ve got a lot of confidence in the cars that my guys are going to be able to give me so that I don’t have to overdrive them to get good finishes. … mindset-wise, it definitely calms the nerves a little bit to go out and really focus on what we’re doing only.”
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.
You can email him at email@example.com.
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