Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will forever be remembered as a Daytona 500 champion. His tenure as the current and reigning champ of The Great American Race, however, will close in roughly two and a half months as the new NASCAR Cup Series season approaches.
Unless, that is, he wins it again.
Stenhouse was still savoring the year-long glory of winning stock-car racing’s most prestigious event as the season wound down last week with the NASCAR Awards in Nashville. His champ duties have included some offseason promotion of the annual 500-miler on Sunday, Feb. 18 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM), which Stenhouse said he and his wife, Madyson, have enjoyed touring the country to tout.
“Just a couple days ago, going down to Florida, back to Daytona and announcing a sellout for the ninth straight year was fun. They said that’s the earliest that it’s been sold out, so I told them, they’re welcome. I think that was because of us winning,” Stenhouse cracked. “No, but hopefully we can do it again. Once you get one, you want to keep getting more.”
Stenhouse returned to both Victory Lane and the Cup Series Playoffs last season for the first time since 2017, when he was under the Roush Fenway Racing banner. The 36-year-old veteran enters his fifth season with JTG Daugherty Racing sitting on a milestone with 400 Cup Series starts in the books, but he also has momentum from arguably his best season with the No. 47 Chevrolet team, logging nine top-10 results and his best average finish (17.8) in the last six years.
The No. 47 group also received an offseason boost with key sponsorship renewals during Nashville week, extending its partnerships with Kimberly-Clark and Bimbo Bakeries. But the break between seasons also presents an opportunity, Stenhouse says, to fully analyze where the team might improve for 2024.
“There’s definitely, I would say, five to 10 areas throughout the season where I could have done something different to get a better result — whether it be qualifying, throughout the race — and the team’s doing the same thing,” Stenhouse said. “You know, they have their handful of things. It’s like, ‘Hey, this cost us. Speed cost us a good finish,’ and we know that, right? And so how do we fix that going forward, and so that’s been fun.
“That’s what I enjoy about the offseason is really just dissecting everything. We’re not in a hurry to fix it because we’ve got till February to get going, and a lot of this stuff is race craft and driving on that given weekend, and our guys are looking at setups and things like that. They do that every day, but it’s fun for me to kind of dissect every little part of our race team.”
The pursuit of improvement will begin when the Cup Series returns to Speedweeks in Daytona, where the memories of the team’s 2023 triumph will be rekindled. For one, the team will get back its race-winning No. 47 Chevy, which has been on display at the trackside Motorsports Hall of Fame of America since last year’s victory. “It’s not going to get run again,” Stenhouse says. “That’s for sure.”
Stenhouse will have more than a puncher’s chance at a repeat victory, and all three of his Cup Series wins have occurred at superspeedways. Only four drivers have won the Daytona 500 in consecutive years. Denny Hamlin (2019-2020) is the most recent back-to-back champ, joining Sterling Marlin (1994-95), Cale Yarborough (1983-84) and Richard Petty (1973-74) on the list, which Stenhouse hopes has room for a fifth.
“It’s something that I’ll cherish these next couple of months, and then go back down in February trying to defend,” Stenhouse says. “I think that it’s been done a few times, and it’d be cool to do it again.”