Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Reuniting With an Old Friend Could Make Him a Surprise Factor in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Season
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing were afterthoughts once again for much of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. But a reunion with a crew chief from Stenhouse’s Xfinity Series days could make the No. 47 car one of the surprises of the 2023 season.
Mike Kelley will take over atop the No. 47 pit box next season in place of Brian Pattie, who led that team for the past three seasons but is moving to Kyle Busch Motorsports to be the crew chief for the No. 51 truck in the Truck Series.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has struggled since joining JTG Daugherty in 2020
Pattie and Stenhouse had marginal success during their three seasons together after moving from what was then Roush Fenway Racing after the 2019 season. Stenhouse failed to win a race in the last three years while posting only five top-five finishes and 11 top-10s. He also never finished higher than 22nd in the points standings.
The introduction of the Next Gen car model was supposed to level the playing field for smaller organizations such as JTG Daugherty. It did in many respects, with teams such as Trackhouse Racing and Petty GMS Racing scoring victories.
Front Row Motorsports was another beneficiary of the Next Gen car. The two-car operation did not win a race, but Michael McDowell set several career-high marks, including 12 top-10s in the No. 38 car for an organization that had never had more than six combined top-10s in any single season since it joined the series in 2005.
JTG Daugherty Racing did not see any such bump in 2022. Stenhouse was 31st in the points standings after the first 10 races of the year and finished the season 26th in the standings. He showed some promise of a rebound in May with four straight top-10 runs, but he did not finish better than 13th afterward in the final 22 events to finish the season.
The crew chief change might be beneficial to everybody involved. Pattie is off to join one of the top teams in the Truck Series and will have a chance to call the shots for Kyle Busch in the five races he will compete in next year.
Kelley, meanwhile, will move into the top spot on the No. 47 team serving as competition director for JTG Daugherty, which he joined in 2020.
Stenhouse had the most success of his career with Mike Kelley as his crew chief
Now 35 years old, Stenhouse also gets to work with the crew chief who has guided him to the greatest heights of his career. Kelley had been an Xfinity Series crew chief at RFR for four years when he took over the pit box seven races into the 2010 season for the No. 6 Xfinity Series team in Stenhouse’s first full-time year in the series.
The results weren’t pretty early on, as Stenhouse was 26th in the points standings midway through the season. But the superspeedway ace finished third in the July race at Daytona International Speedway and rose to 16th in the standings by the end of the year.
The momentum Stenhouse and Kelley had built carried into the following year. Stenhouse had five top-10s in the first six races, won his first career race at Iowa Speedway in May, and went on to win the series championship.
He then repeated as champion in 2012 with a series-high six wins and 788 laps led.
Stenhouse graduated to the Cup Series in 2013 to take over the No. 17 car, while Kelley stayed in the Xfinity Series with Trevor Bayne, although Stenhouse and Kelley were not separated for long.
Kelley moved up to the Cup Series in 2014 to once again crew chief Stenhouse, but the success the pair had in the Xfinity Series did not transfer to the sport’s top level. Stenhouse managed five top-10s, did not lead a single lap, and finished 27th in the standings.
The next eight years were not particularly special for Stenhouse or Kelley. Stenhouse has made the NASCAR Playoffs just once when he won his only two Cup Series races in 2017, and Kelley bounced around to a few different teams before settling at JTG Daugherty three years ago.
Changes could make JTG Daugherty relevant in 2023
JTG Daugherty itself hasn’t been any better in that span. A.J. Allmendinger won the organization’s only race in 2014 at Watkins Glen International to make the playoffs, but no JTG Daugherty driver has won or finished higher than 19th in the standings since.
Perhaps the comfort level between driver and crew chief and a second season with a car made of single-sourced pieces that does not allow large teams to build better, and therefore more expensive, parts enable Stenhouse to become one of the underdog surprise stories of the 2023 season.
Have thoughts on this topic? Keep the conversation rolling in our comments section below.