“This is a boutique race team,” says Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of the JTG Daugherty Racing organization, his home in the NASCAR Cup Series. “That’s what I call it. Everybody is tight-knit. We don’t have a ton of people working on our car, but we have really good ones. We are ready to fight for it in 2023.”
Stenhouse may have placed 26th in this season’s Cup Series with JTG Daugherty’s No. 47 Chevrolet Camaro, but he reeled off four straight top-10 finishes early in the season at Dover, Darlington, Kansas and Charlotte. Adhering to his philosophy that the team needed to maximize consistency, Stenhouse inked a multi-year contract extension to stay with the team over the summer. In another move to help fortify the team effort, Stenhouse helped lure longtime colleague and racing mastermind Mike Kelley over to be his Cup crew chief come 2023. He catches us up with where he feels the team is and where he hopes to take it in the year ahead.
Q: As far as off-season reflection goes, I wanted to remind you about something you said to me in an interview we did a few days after you signed a multi-year extension with JTG Daugherty Racing. You said: “That’s the biggest thing. It’s looking at the long play now that I’m dialed in here for a few more years. It is looking at the long run and making sure that in the next couple of years we can try and turn ourselves into contenders.” That’s pretty much where you’re at now, isn’t it?
RICKY STENHOUSE: It is, exactly. Our team, we learned a ton this season, but with the results, I don’t think they show exactly what all we learned and just how far we have come. However, I do believe that everything that we learned we will be able to apply to the team this offseason. We’ve also got a little bit more of a technical alliance with Hendrick and with Chevy, so the tools that we’ll have to make better decisions for our engineers will be there.
We made some changes with our crew chief for 2023. I’ve been with Brian Pattie since 2017. He’s moving on and doing a Truck deal. So now we’re actually bringing back probably my biggest supporter that I’ve ever had over here in NASCAR and that will be my new crew chief Mike Kelley. Mike and I won back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2011 and 2012. Anytime that you can get somebody that believes in you almost more than you believe in yourself and who can lead the ship and point us in the right direction is just huge.
We put in our time this year and it wasn’t great, but I felt like everything that we learned should be applied to what we are doing and we can have a better year two and year three with this car. The car is going to be the one thing that is pretty constant and not changing. That is something that over the years, it seemed like every single year that the car was changing. I feel really good about where we’re at.
Q: In working together again in the Cup series in 2023, Mike Kelley is going to serve as a crucial and immediate point of context for you, isn’t he?
RS: Oh, for sure. He’s been at JTG Daugherty Racing with us kind of working behind the scenes of some car preparations and things like that, so I feel really good that he has been integrated with this car. It’s not like he’s not been around this Cup car. I think that’s very important. This car is so much different than any other car that we’ve ran. I feel good that he’s kind of learned all the ins and outs of the car. He’s sat back and watched the past couple of years. He’s not been the one making the calls on the pit box and running the race team, but I felt like he was able to learn a lot that I think will help him once he gets back up on top of the box leading our race team.
Q: You ran second at Dover in the spring race and backed that result up with three consecutive top-10 finishes at Darlington, Kansas and Charlotte. Can you guys look at a run lie that and use it as a gauge for future performance momentum?
RS: Yeah, exactly. In talking with our people internally and what access that we have now that we didn’t have last year, it’s kind of crazy that we were able rally off those four consecutive top 10s and be as fast as we were. You know, there was a lot of information out there that we didn’t have access to. We had a Christmas luncheon last week and I told our guys, “Hey, this definitely isn’t a season to write home about, but at the same time, there were some really high points during the season that I think that we can’t forget and we have to remember how in contention we were to win a few of those races.” It was like, “Don’t let this good stuff get lost on us. Let’s make sure we focus on that.” As much as you’ve got to look at the bad spots to learn and get better during the off-season, you’ve got to look at those good sports, too and see if you can take anything from there and apply it to another parts of other issues you’re experiencing at other racetracks.
We’ve got to know that in 2023 that we will have better resources and a better continuity in the family here at JTG Daugherty Racing from top to bottom. I feel like everybody is going to work better than they ever have and we know that this is our year to take a step and be more of a contender versus just being out there and filling some spots and having good runs here and there. We feel like we are going to be able to do that and take a step. Last year we all knew that it was going to be a learning process, which it was. It was a tough one. With a lot of guys in our shop, their contracts were up and, hey, they wanted to stay here with us. They wanted to continue to do battle with us, which I feel like is very important, as well.
Q: What’ll you have going the rest of the winter and how are you looking at the 2023 season?
RS: Well, with the offseason, normally I’m filling it up with midget racing. I’d normally go to California and I’d look at the Chili Bowl and all of this stuff, but this year we’ve kind of taken a step back, relaxed and rested up. I’ve been putting a lot of time in the gym and I’m going to work on my nutrition a little bit and make sure I get that dialed in and to be in tip-top shape for Daytona.
Then on the shop side here, we’ve been doing some more with the team and having some team dinners and having the guys over to the house. We want to get that atmosphere in the way that a race team should have one. I’ve obviously been around the simulator and making sure that we use all the resources and tools that we have to hit the ground running better than we were last year. That’s kind of what we are doing this off-season. I’ll also have a couple trips planned in there with Christmas and New Year’s and a friend’s wedding, but other than that, it’s all business. We’re ready to go.
I think that everybody in the team believes in each other and we are just trying to make sure that we use everybody’s strengths and to backfill their weaknesses with somebody else’s strengths. I don’t think we’ve done a good job with that the last couple of years. I think now we have a better structure and everybody is going to kind of share some of that workload. What do they say, two heads are better than one, right? That’s kind of what we are restructuring right now to make sure we use everybody that is in our race shop.
Q: And the 2023 Busch Light Clash at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, will be here before you know it, eh?
RS: Yeah, man, last year was crazy! Seeing that new track and everything was kind of unknown and now we know what to expect. We were not bad there last year. Obviously, we made the race, which was a tough ask to do. But looking back at the season, the short flat tracks were where we struggled. It was crazy that we were able to do that well at the Coliseum. I think that everything will be a bit more normal now that we’ve done it once. I’m looking forward to getting back there and kicking the season off.