Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Guess what? NASCAR is back, baby. As I get older, I find myself anticipating February throughout the winter months with more excitement each year. With NASCAR kicking off its 75th anniversary season, many things will feel special this year. And what a way to light the fire.
Five years, seven months. That was the last time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tasted victory lane. That came at the exact venue that NASCAR visited this week, Daytona International Speedway, when Stenhouse earned his second career win in the July 400-mile race. Afterward, he proclaimed a now-popular phrase, “America, 1776, we are the champs!”
Now, Stenhouse can say that again, but with a much more colossal victory. The 11th-year driver outlasted the field to capture the victory in the 65th Daytona 500 on Sunday (Feb. 19).
“This Kroger/Cottonelle team worked really hard this season,” an elated Stenhouse told FOX Sports. “[We had] great pit stops, Hendrick engines, glad a Chevrolet won. This is unbelievable. This was the sight of my last win back in 2017. We had a couple of shots last year to get a win and fell short. It was a tough season, but we got it done, Daytona 500.”
Stenhouse had been quietly overlooked all week, but made it count when it mattered most. He restarted sixth on the first overtime attempt, pushed Joey Logano to the lead on the backstretch and quickly took the lead as the Big One unfolded behind him.
On the final restart, Stenhouse held the lead but lost it just as he took the white when Kyle Larson took him and Logano three-wide in the middle. But without any help, Larson drifted back and got turned as Stenhouse was shoved back to the lead. The yellow flew and unlike the NASCAR Xfinity Series finish, it was only a short time before NASCAR declared the No. 47 the winner, giving Stenhouse his third career win.
“When the [No.] 8 went to the bottom, I was able to push the [No.] 22 and the [No.] 5, we had a huge run. I was hoping we would get to the white there and we didn’t, so I knew I was going to take the top and I was hoping the No. 22 would follow, and he did. He was able to push us out. I went to the bottom. The [No.] 8 and [No.] 22 got a huge run. The [No.] 5 split me in the middle, but another fellow dirt racer with [Christopher] Bell gave me a good shot down the short chute into [turn] 1, and we were out front when the caution came out.”
The win gives JTG Daugherty Racing its first win since 2014 and second as an organization. The team also becomes the first single-car organization to win the 500 since the Wood Brothers Racing upset with Trevor Bayne in 2011.
Barring more than 16 winners or injury, Stenhouse will compete in the playoffs for the second time in his career. JTG Daugherty had shown signs of speed in 2022 but could not consistently put it together.
Now, with a Daytona 500 win and likely a playoff berth under their belt, Stenhouse and the team can race with some extra weight off their shoulders. That could bring more surprises along the way.
AJ Allmendinger was one of many drivers to overcome early obstacles to earn a strong finish. Opening up his full-time campaign with Kaulig Racing, Allmendinger lost the draft after green-flag pit stops in stage one. The 41-year-old fell a lap down toward the end of the stage, but made a bold move to earn the lucky dog under the stage break. By the end of the second stage, he was back in the top 10 and in contention for the win. The No. 16 driver kept his car in contention, avoiding the final wreck to finish in sixth.
Riley Herbst became one of the first highlights in his Cup debut. Driving the No. 15 for Rick Ware Racing, Herbst spun while entering pit road on the first cycle of green flag stops. After going two laps down, he was able to get back on the lead lap through the frenzy of cautions. When the dust settled, the Las Vegas, Nev. native finished 10th in his debut, RWR’s seventh top 10 and second consecutive in the Daytona 500. RWR teammate Cody Ware wrapped up a strong showing with a 14th-place finish.
How about Mr. Nitro Circus, himself? Travis Pastrana has done just about everything in racing, except drive a Cup car. Making his Cup debut for 23XI Racing in the No. 67, Pastrana brought the energy all week, only ramping up when he locked in a spot on speed in Wednesday’s qualifying session. However, the man has jumped out of a plane without a parachute … he had something to prove.
Despite falling a lap down due to speeding on pit road, the 39-year-old regained his lap and found himself in contention at the end. On the final lap, he got turned from behind, igniting a race-ending pileup. Still, he was credited with an 11th-place finish, mirroring that of fellow celebrity Frankie Muniz in the ARCA Menards Series opener. After this debut, bring him back for some more.
Another driver making his Daytona 500 was Zane Smith, who locked in his spot in the Duels with Front Row Motorsports. Two days after successfully defending his Daytona win in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Smith hopped into the No. 36 and was the highest-finishing FRM car in 13th. He also had to overcome going a lap down early in the race, as well as getting caught up in the second Big One. Smith was a part of history with the reigning Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions competing in the same 500 for the first time.
Then there is ol’ seven-time, Jimmie Johnson. Two years out and a new car? No problem for the 47-year-old. He looked as if he hadn’t skipped a beat in his return to NASCAR, even finishing stage one as the highest-finishing Chevrolet in eighth.
With just over 15 laps to go, the No. 84 received slight contact to the right rear, but was able to continue without issue. Johnson got up as high as sixth in the closing stages, but was unfortunately on the wrong end of a multi-car crash on the first overtime restart. Despite this, Johnson was competitive and reminded everyone why he is a shoe-in Hall of Famer.
Underdogs Who Built the Sport
To celebrate NASCAR’s 75th anniversary, we will be highlighting a different underdog each week. To kick it off, we start with a driver who my family has ties with and inspired me to root for the “little guys.” That would be Junie Donlavey.
If you are going to talk about NASCAR underdogs in its history, Donlavey has to be there. He began fielding a team in 1950, fielding a car in the very first Southern 500. Running the team out of his beloved hometown of Richmond, Va., Donlavey was known as one of the most genuine car owners in the garage.
As an owner, Donlavey fielded a car in 863 Cup races over 45 years. His first top five as an owner came with Runt Harris in 1959. In his time, Donlavey fielded a car for three drivers who earned Rookie of the Year: Bill Dennis (1970), Jody Ridley (1980) and Ken Schrader (1985).
Best known for running the No. 90, Donlavey Racing fielded 60 different Cup drivers. No, he never built an empire like Petty Enterprises or Hendrick Motorsports, but he gave many drivers a chance that blossomed into fruitful careers. 14 drivers named to the 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998 drove for Donlavey, including guys like Joe Weatherly, Bobby Isaac, Ricky Rudd, David Pearson, Tiny Lund and more.
Donlavey earned his only win as an owner in 1981 with Ridley, who finished fifth in points that year. The team closed after the 2004 season, but Donlavey left a legacy behind. He died in 2014, coincidentally at the age of 90. That same year, Richmond Raceway named their garage after him.
What They’re Saying
Noah Gragson (24th): “I thought we had a decent run until the end. We put ourselves in position in the top 10 and then made a couple of mistakes and got caught up in the big wreck at the end with the last caution. Thankful for the opportunity. We’re going to continue to work hard and grow as a team. Really proud of [crew chief] Luke Lambert and the boys for the adversity we had. Never quit. We’re not going to quit. Just very thankful.”
Harrison Burton (26th): “I am just disappointed. We were leading with 18 to go and I feel like we had a shot. It just didn’t go our way. The outside just didn’t really get rolling and we didn’t get organized very well and by the time we did it was just a little too late. I feel like when the [No.] 22 pulled up in front of me I tried to slow down to engage him, and I got hit by the [No.] 8 really hard and sent the [No.] 22 three-wide and we lost momentum again.
“I don’t know why I got out of shape off of [turn] 4 but I about wrecked off of 4. Then you’re buried in the back trying to make moves to get back up and when they wreck you are just right in the way. It is frustrating. I felt like we executed our race well. Just sucks not to win for sure.”
Michael McDowell (28th):
Small Team Scheme of the Week
Sunny D is back once again, but with a different driver this go around. The sponsor brought their bright scheme to Rick Ware Racing with Herbst. While their other driver in Stenhouse earned the trophy, Herbst capped it off with a top 10 in his debut.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.
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