SOMEWHERE ABOVE THE CLOUDS — At an altitude higher than Mount Everest, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sits comfortably in a leather seat in a CE-680A chartered plane, an enormous Daytona 500 ring on his right hand, a Rolex watch, given to the race winner, on his left wrist and his wife across the aisle.
It is a long way from the late nights on the road going from track to track with his father and later on his own as he sought to make a career driving sprint cars.
In the whirlwind 48 hours since his No. 17 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet crossed the finish line to win the Daytona 500, Stenhouse had been on the go. Now, as the plane returns from Chicago to Concord, North Carolina, Stenhouse has time to reflect upon his journey to winning NASCAR’s biggest race.
“When people climb Mount Everest, they get up there, they take it in,” Stenhouse tells NBC Sports. “You can’t be up there very long, but you take every moment you can. … That’s a big feat. That’s how I feel like this is.”
After receiving his ring, watch, race winner’s jacket and placing his right foot and both hands in wet cement to be permanently displayed among Daytona 500 champions, Stenhouse was off to Disney World on Monday as part of the winner’s promotional tour.
He returned home that night, got about three hours of sleep and flew the next morning to Chicago for a media tour and the chance to glimpse the street course NASCAR will race there July 1-2. Wednesday, he was at the race shop. Thursday he was in New York City for more appearances and ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq MarketSite in Times Square.
Stenhouse could have never imagined doing those things as he sought to follow his dad into racing. Among the memories that stand out to Stenhouse are the times between his dad’s races. One of Stenhouse’s main duties included scraping mud off his dad’s car before the next event.
“I had the most important job,” says Stenhouse, 35, smiling and thinking back to his younger self. “I kept that car so clean. I was filthy by the end of the night, I mean, just dirty head to toe, but the car was clean.”
He thinks about all those nights on the road with his father, going to the next race or returning home. Many of those late-night trips, the youngster slept. Still, traveling with dad to the next race was always special for Stenhouse.
When he started racing, the goal was simply to race sprint cars. As he became more successful, Stenhouse gained attention and was hired by Tony Stewart to drive for his sprint car team in 2007.
“Moving to Indy, racing for Tony … that’s where I really thought I was going to be, racing sprint cars in Indiana, and I was loving it,” Stenhouse says. “2007 was some of the most fun times I had racing.
“Then all of a sudden, an opportunity comes along you can’t pass up and you end up in NASCAR, and here we are flying around to the racetracks, going on big-time TV shows and big press and representing the biggest motorsport entity in the country. … It’s wild how it all plays out.”
He moved to the ARCA Menards Series in 2008. After one season in stock cars, Stenhouse drove in seven Xfinity races for what was then Roush Fenway Racing. His rookie season in 2010 was known as much for his struggles and wrecking cars as any success, but he overcame that and won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12.
After returning home from Florida on Monday night, Stenhouse pulled out his two Xfinity championship rings to compare with his Daytona 500 ring.
“Man, I thought these were big,” he said he thought to himself, comparing how small the championship rings were to his Daytona 500 ring.
Still, it’s a nice collection. His Daytona 500 ring will go well with the Harley J. Trophy he earned for winning that race. The original, which takes four to six people to carry, remains at Daytona International Speedway. Stenhouse gets a version of the trophy that comes in a case that one can roll from place to place. It sits in the rear cargo hold of the plane as Stenhouse relishes his accomplishment.
He might not have experienced all of these events this week had it not been for his dirt racing friends Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, who both later went to Victory Lane to congratulate their friend.
Larson pushed Stenhouse into the lead on the backstretch just before the caution that set the first of two overtime restarts.
“I was yelling in my helmet when I helped push him to the lead,” Larson said after the race. “I was hoping it was going to stay green. It would have probably been me or him to win. I’m so happy for him and his team and (crew chief) Mike Kelley. Can’t wait to go get changed go give him a big hug because he is one of my great buddies.”
On the final lap, Larson got a big run. He later said that he wanted to stay committed to Stenhouse and make his move on the backstretch, but the run was so big that Larson moved into the middle to get around Stenhouse. Larson’s run stalled. Bell pushed Stenhouse on the bottom as Joey Logano led the outside line.
The push from Bell put Stenhouse in the lead before the caution came out for a multi-car crash behind him.
That it was friends he was racing in those final laps meant even more to Stenhouse.
“I look at Christopher and Kyle and obviously they have accomplished, other than the Daytona 500, they’ve accomplished, I feel like, more in the Cup Series than I have,” Stenhouse told NBC Sports.
“I feel like I look at them as kids almost. I remember when I was in the Nationwide Series and Cup Series and talking to Kyle and Christopher when they were still running dirt cars. I was kind of a part owner in a dirt car when Christopher was battling for a win. I went and talked to him. He was super shy, didn’t hardly talk at all. I was like, ‘Hey man, you’ll get to where I’m at. No problem.’ Obviously he did.
“I look at that, felt like Tony Stewart kind of did that for me. It was cool that we were all battling for the win. Both played an integral part, Kyle pushing me to the lead, I semi lost the lead on the last lap and Christopher pushed me back to the lead.”
And helped Stenhouse complete this journey into the clouds.
2. Ending overtime?
Last Sunday’s Daytona 500 marked the fifth time in the last six years that race has gone to overtime.
Since 2020, eight of 14 speedway-style races have been extended beyond the scheduled distance.
With the sport coming off a season that saw Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch sit out races — Busch says he’s still not ready to return to any form of racing — because of injuries suffered at other tracks, does it make sense to continue to have overtime in speedway-style races at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta?
Fortunately, no Cup driver has been injured in the Daytona 500 since Ryan Newman suffered a head injury during an overtime finish of the race in 2020.
Since the #nascar overtime era began in 2004, there have been only six "true" Daytona 500s.
There have been 12 years in which the distance of The Great American Race went beyond 500 miles.
The 2023 Daytona 500 set a record at 530 miles and was the fifth overtime in six years. pic.twitter.com/KGj9PtFUXp
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) February 21, 2023
There’s no doubt that it can be deflating for fans to see a race end under caution after the buildup to the checkered flag, particularly for a marquee event such as the Daytona 500. But no one seems upset these days that Dale Earnhardt won his lone Daytona 500 under caution in 1998.
It’s time to examine if overtime is warranted at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta because of the likelihood of crashes and the possibility of drivers getting hurt.
Eleven of the 17 cars that failed to finish last weekend’s Daytona 500 were eliminated in accidents in overtime. Nineteen of the race’s 40 cars were involved in a crash after the scheduled distance of the race.
No one was injured in those accidents, but it’s easy to forget that there are people in those cars experiencing those hits.
Kyle Larson, eliminated in a crash on the final lap last weekend, called his impact “a huge hit.”
Larson went on to say: “It was definitely one of the bigger (hits) I’ve ever had, but, thankfully, the car held up and all my safety equipment was fine, and I’m fine.”
Daytona 500 lengths since the GWC policy was instituted in Cup (July 2004):
2023: 530 miles
2009: 380 (rain)
2005: 508 https://t.co/PYzjfwD48b
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) February 21, 2023
For Larson to say that incident was among the bigger hits he’s had is something, considering his car flew into the fence at the finish of the 2013 Xfinity race at Daytona.
Maybe a compromise for those who enjoy overtime is to end it at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta and keep it for the other races. It wouldn’t be unusual to have different rules for different tracks.
Until this year, drivers were not permitted to choose what lane to restart at Daytona and Talladega, while they could do so at other tracks. Also, NASCAR will not have stage breaks during Cup road course races while keeping the breaks for all other events.
Bottom line is that NASCAR needs to consider the safety element. Sometimes it’s better to finish a race as scheduled — even if under caution — instead of stretching it beyond its scheduled distance and risk injury to competitors.
3. More data
Kyle Larson said he wore a mouthguard accelerometer in last weekend’s Daytona 500, marking the first time he’s worn the device in a Cup race.
While an incident data recorder on the vehicle measures the impact of a crash on a car, a mouthguard accelerometer measures the impact of a crash on the driver.
Although other racing series use accelerometers that are in a driver’s ear, John Patalak, NASCAR vice president, safety engineer says that a mouthguard accelerometer provides better information because the roof of a person’s mouth is “extremely well coupled to your skull.”
NASCAR is working on the mouthguard accelerometer for drivers with Dr. Joel Douglas Stitzel, Jr., a professor of biomedical engineering at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. His research interest includes concussion in sports.
Drivers are not required to use the device but more are open to do so as the mouthguard is condensed and there are fewer concerns about it interfering with a driver’s speech while talking to the team on the radio.
“They look more comfortable to wear now,” Larson said of his decision to have it at Daytona. “I never wore the one before but it didn’t look that comfortable.
“I want to see the data and see how it matches up to the car data. I also want to run it in my dirt wrecks to see how those compare to these wrecks.”
4. Study time
Among all the studying Austin Dillon has been doing this season, he’s also reading more at the suggestion of former driver Josh Wise, who trains Chevrolet drivers mentally and physically.
Dillon said he’s been reading “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth.
“Talent doesn’t always equate to success because it’s just how fast you learn things,” Dillon said. “Grit is sustained over a long period of time and people sticking with things and kind of grinding something out and not giving up on a goal. That word grit, that’s a key word for me this year.”
Dillon finished third at the Clash at the Coliseum and was running toward the front late in the Daytona 500 before he was collected in a crash. The series heads to Auto Club Speedway this weekend. Dillon finished second to Kyle Larson in last year’s race there.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. became the 20th different Cup winner of a points race since last year — when the Next Gen car debuted.
Among those without a points win in the new car are Brad Keselowski (he did win a Daytona qualifying race last year), Martin Truex Jr. (won this year’s Clash exhibition race) and Ryan Blaney (won last year’s All-Star Race)
Stenhouse broke a streak of seven races in a row with a driver who had previously won with the Next Gen car. The last driver to win their first points race in the Next Gen era was Chris Buescher in last year’s night race at Bristol.