DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Though auto racing is overflowing with the unpredictable, there are also many clockwork routines.
One of those is the post-race choreograph for a team: break down the pit box, put everything away in its assigned place, hustle to the airport and fly home.
This time, not a chance. If you’re gonna kick routine to the curb, you do your kicking after winning the Daytona 500.
“When you win a race like this, you take your time and celebrate it,” crew member Zach Yager said Monday morning. “You can rush to the plane when you lose. No need to be rushing to the plane when you win.”
Instead, the No. 47 team remained in Daytona’s victory lane, where champagne kept magically appearing as the hour grew later and later.
“We decided to enjoy it and stay inside the track where it happened,” Yager said. “A lot of champagne bottles. We were also so caught up in the moment, we didn’t want to leave here. We felt if we left, it would make it not real.”
Yager is a tire carrier on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s pit crew. Normally on a Monday morning, he’d be back in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, getting back to the modern routine for the modern crewman, which at the NASCAR level is now a full-time gig – cardio, pit practice, weights.
But this was no normal Monday.
Over the years, it has informally been known as the Hangover Invitational. The winning driver and team returns to Daytona International Speedway, mere hours after leaving the previous night/early morning, for more platitudes and spoils.
Leather Daytona jackets for driver, crew chief and owner(s), as well as a Rolex for the driver, who removes it before pressing his hands (and right racing boot) into wet cement to solidify the history of it all.
Then it’s more group pictures, and Stenhouse, like all the winners before him, is again reminded he didn’t do it alone.
“For us as a race team, it’s all about these guys, all the guys and gals back at the shop,” Stenhouse said. “Friends and family – to celebrate this with them, it was the perfect ending. It didn’t get too crazy last night, but we did stay out a little late.”
This is obviously the career highlight, so far, for the 35-year-old Mississippi native. Stenhouse cut his racing teeth on dirt, making a name for himself in USAC’s sprint-car divisions, before putting more sheet metal around him and asphalt down below – in 2008 he made the move to full-bodied stock cars and found quick success in the ARCA Series.
That’s when he lined up a new Holy Grail.
“Once I transitioned to stock car racing in 2008, in the ARCA Series, that’s when the dream of winning the Daytona 500 came about for me,” he said Monday morning.
He came close before. First, he showed he could win here when he won Daytona’s summer race in 2017. And a year ago in the 500, he led from lap 180 through 193 and was still jockeying for the lead – and potentially the eventual win – when he was caught up in a crash on lap 195.
Knowing you can win it is only half the battle.
“Once you get a win at Daytona, I felt like that dream was possible,” Stenhouse said. “I knew where victory lane was. Last year, I felt like we had it in our grasp, but it slipped away. We seized it this year and it’s really special.”
It wasn’t exactly a David-over-Goliath story, but about as close as you can get in NASCAR. Stenhouse’s team – JTG Daugherty Racing – employs 40, owns a Cup Series charter, and partners with a slew of sponsors, big and small. A first-class operation, no doubt, but within today’s Cup Series, it’s practically a shoestring operation.
“You have to have the right people,” said Jodi Geshickter, part of an ownership group that includes her husband Tad, former NBA All-Star Brad Daugherty, and Gordon Smith.
“It’s a beautiful moment,” Jodi said on a crisp and clear morning. “The sun is shining, we’re here together celebrating. We have so much to be thankful for, from a spiritual standpoint, we just thank God for this moment.”
The night before, it was other men upstairs who held the No. 47 team’s fate in their hands. After an overtime extended by a lengthy caution, and another restart, Stenhouse got back to the white flag in a side-by-side battle with reigning Cup Series champion Joey Logano – Shoestring versus Team Penske.
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Yet another free-for-all erupted behind them through Turn 1, and since they had completed one lap of the two-lap overtime, the ensuing yellow flag ended the racing – the finishing order would be frozen in whatever position everyone was in when the caution was triggered.
Logano and Stenhouse, or Stenhouse and Logano? Officials upstairs viewed replays and scoring equipment and made the call: Goliath gets second place.
Behind pit wall, the tire carrier felt the call coming but wouldn’t let himself believe it until he heard it.
“I knew they were going to review it,” Yager said Monday. “I thought, if they’re going to look at this, for once I hope the chips fall on our side. We were five laps away from winning this last year. Don’t rip the rug out from under us again.
“Let it be us.”
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., team celebrate Daytona 500 win, perfect ending