Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins NASCAR’s longest Daytona 500 ever

DAYTONA BEACH — When Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief, Mike Kelley, woke up at 3:30 Sunday morning before the Daytona 500, he took a piece of paper and some duct tape to stick a simple message on the roll bar of their Camaro.

We believe.

They believed, despite the fact that their No. 47 Chevrolet qualified poorly and started 31st in the 40-car field. They believed, despite the fact that JTG Daugherty Racing is a one-car shop that hadn’t won a race in NASCAR’s Cup Series since 2014. They believed, despite the fact that Stenhouse himself hadn’t earned a victory in 2,059 days, since the July 2017 race at Daytona International Speedway.

“We’re trying to get people to believe in Ricky Stenhouse again,” said Kelley, a Pinellas County native.

They should after Sunday, when Stenhouse squeaked ahead of Joey Logano in the second overtime to win the longest Daytona 500 ever.

“Man, this is unbelievable,” Stenhouse said. “We got it done, Daytona 500.”

He got it done as many Daytona 500 champions do; he avoided trouble and put himself in the right place at the right time late.

In some ways, that shouldn’t be a surprise. The 35-year-old Mississippi native is skilled at superspeedways, where he earned his first two Cup wins: at Talladega in 2017 and in the Coke Zero 400 later that year.

But Stenhouse spent most of Sunday’s race-record 212 laps farther back in the field. Twenty other drivers — half the grid — traded the lead 50 times before Stenhouse pulled in front.

The list included Tampa’s Aric Almirola, the Hillsborough High alumnus who spent time in first during all three phases but was collected in the final wreck of what is expected to be his last 500. He finished 21st.

It included Tampa-born Denny Hamlin, who was gunning for his fourth win in “The Great American Race” but was involved in two late wrecks. Even Travis Pastrana — the daredevil and action-sports legend who was making his Cup debut — led before Stenhouse did.

As the final laps neared, Stenhouse lingered in striking distance. The others faded. Former series champion Brad Keselowski had the car to beat for most of the day and led with seven laps left, but his No. 6 Ford was passed by a team effort from Chevrolet. That moved Kyle Busch — who has won almost everything in NASCAR except for its most prestigious event — into the lead.

Until the first late caution, caused by Daniel Suarez spinning out. When Logano passed Busch on the restart of the first overtime, Stenhouse followed and darted inside to take the lead. He might have won it then, except Austin Dillon started a 13-car wreck behind them to set up a second overtime.

Stenhouse took the field to the white flag, but Logano was gaining on him in the outside lane.

“I needed a last lap,” Logano said.

He didn’t get it.

Though Logano briefly pulled ahead, Stenhouse squeaked back in front before Pastrana nosed Kyle Larson further back in the pack. When the caution came out from that chain-reaction crash, the race was over.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Stenhouse, who was dealing with another set of flashing lights: his fuel sensors, telling him he was almost out of gas.

Sunday’s showing was validation for JTG Daugherty Racing, an overshadowed team in the sport that keeps chugging along trying to beat the bigger, richer shops like Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports. Even though their car qualified poorly, Stenhouse knew the gap between 31st and first wasn’t too big for his team overcome.

It was also validation for Stenhouse, a driver who has been known more for his aggressive wrecks and the fact that he once dated Danica Patrick than for what he has accomplished on the track.

“I feel like he’s got the spirit of a winner,” team co-owner Jodi Geschickter said. “I felt like he could do it. I never questioned that.”

Stenhouse apparently didn’t, either. Kelley said Stenhouse is better than any other driver he’s worked with about putting bad results or mistakes behind him. That included Sunday, when he shrugged off a penalty for speeding on pit road.

“We just kept pushing through,” Stenhouse said.

They believed.

Nuts and bolts

Jimmie Johnson started near the back of the pack but rose into the top 10 after two seasons away from the series. He was involved in one of the final wrecks and finished 31st.

Former series and race champion Kevin Harvick settled for 12th in what’s expected to be his final Daytona 500; he has announced that he is retiring after this season.