DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Fifty-two lead changes among 21 drivers. Only three in-race cautions over the race’s first 198 laps and then three more over the final 13 laps, 10 run in overtime. A Daytona 500 winner who didn’t take the lead until that OT and then pulled into Victory Lane for the first time in more than five and a half years.
It all reads like an unlikely confluence of racing events. A once-in-a-lifetime Halley’s Comet sort of sighting. A NASCAR unicorn. But it is none of the above. Not at Daytona. Not in stock car racing’s biggest race run on its biggest roulette wheel.
No, that spaghetti pile of closing laps statistics and sheet metal has become the Great Modus Operandi of the Great American Race. A few hours of calm followed by a few laps of chaos followed by a driver standing in Victory Lane who is proud to be there but deep down, if they’re being honest, also sort of can’t believe it.
“It feels like a dream, it really does,” winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. confessed as he received a conga line of hugs from a seemingly endless number of revelers from one-car, scrappy JTG Daugherty Racing. “But I know it’s real because I know how hard everyone right here has worked. How hard I have worked. This racetrack tonight has finally given us the breaks we’ve been so close to getting for so long. Standing right here took so long. But right now, it was worth it all.”
Worth a personal wait for Stenhouse of 2,060 days. Five years, seven months, 19 days. Nearly 68 months. One hundred ninety-nine races. That’s how long it had been since he’d won a NASCAR Cup Series event, also at Daytona, the summertime 400-miler of July 1, 2017. This is only his third win in a decade of trying. For JTG Daugherty, the drought was even longer. The No. 47 car hadn’t been covered in confetti and champagne since August 10, 2014, a total of 3,116 days. This is only their second trophy to take back to the race shop. The biggest single-race trophy that can be won in NASCAR.
“We’ve always had to take a little less into these weekly fights with these big-dollar teams and that’s okay, that’s who we are, but there were nights when we asked, ‘Can we keep these lights on?'” team co-owner Tad Geschickter explained Sunday night, standing alongside wife Jodi. The couple moved their team up from the Xfinity Series to Cup ahead of the 2009 Daytona 500, joining forces with former NBA All-Star Brad Daugherty (he started the day at Daytona but missed the celebration after feeling under the weather and flying home). “COVID was really rough on us. We’re sponsored by retailers, grocers, suppliers. When they got squeezed, so did we. We needed breaks. We needed the playing field to be leveled and we have gotten that.”
They got it in the form of NASCAR’s Next Gen car that debuted in 2022, only one part of a slew of rules changes implemented by the sanctioning body to help teams cut costs and perhaps narrow the gap between the far-flung financial ends of the garage. That parity swept through the sport one year ago with 19 different winners, the most seen in 21 seasons.
Added to the crapshoot of superspeedway racing, plus the constant reset button that the Daytona 500 has become in recent seasons, that level playing field turned into a showcase stage for Stenhouse and the No. 47 Chevy.
“We were 35th in qualifying on Wednesday and we finished 16th [out of 21 cars] in our qualifying race on Thursday,” Stenhouse recalled. “We had a pit road speeding penalty early in the race today and even when I was in the lead late, we were running low on fuel, and I was constantly afraid that I was going to run out of gas. But then, it worked out!”
For him, yes. For everyone else, not so much. Again, that has become the way of this place.
In the past dozen years, the Daytona 500 has averaged more than 32 lead changes per race. In the past eight races, the race has seen four last-lap passes for the lead after there had been only nine in the first 57 editions of the event. In the past seven races, an average of 31 cars have been involved in crashes in the Daytona 500, more than three quarters of the field, including 30 on Sunday. The Daytona 500 pole sitter has not won the race since Dale Jarrett in 2000. The last driver to lead the race at the halfway point and go on to win it was Davey Allison in 1992.
It’s total chaos. An evil beachside force that seems determined to slam its doors in the faces of NASCAR legends; former NASCAR champions Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 61 laps Sunday but ultimately reached a combined 0-for-48 in their Daytona 500 careers. But then it also loves to open that same door for those in need. Say, a Mississippi driver who was once earmarked for greatness at then-superpower Roush Fenway Racing and then seemingly tossed into motorsport purgatory.
Just take a look at the past three winners of this race. Stenhouse’s third-ever win was his first in 199 races. Last year it was Austin Cindric, a de facto rookie making only his eighth Cup Series start. In 2021 it was Michael McDowell, earning his first-ever win in his 357th career start.
“You expect chaos at Daytona, and you always have, but these days it does seem crazier than it’s ever been,” Stenhouse explained as his toilet paper sponsor threw rolls around Victory Lane behind him. “I don’t think anyone can dispute that.
“Most of the time, that chaos that this place has become, it bites you in the butt. You’re in the wall. In the grass. Wrecked and loading up and going home. You start thinking it’s never going to go your way, especially at this place and in this race.”
Then the 35-year-old turned, pointed to the spot on the massive Harley J. Earl Trophy where his name will be engraved in sterling silver alongside the Hall of Fame likes of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon … as well as the gotta-search-them winners such as Pete Hamilton, Derrike Cope and Trevor Bayne.
“But sometimes you make your breaks, you catch some breaks, you make the right move at the right time, and Daytona, it rewards you.”