Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is at home with JTG Daugherty Racing. The two-car Nascar Cup Series team is a place he feels he can be at long term.
Stenhouse joined JTG Daugherty Racing ahead of the 2020 season after unexpectedly being cut from Roush Fenway Racing’s Cup roster. However, the change over to JTG Daugherty Racing is proving to be worthwhile, with Stenhouse off to his best start in his ninth full Cup Series season.
“I enjoy it here,” Stenhouse, whose contract expires at the end of the 2021 season, said. “I love being here and I love trying to build the team around the people we have. I’m looking forward to continuing the process of getting better and better every week. I want to be here.”
Stenhouse is currently riding on a wave of momentum with his No. 47 team, having a career-best average finish of 12.6 after the eighth race of the season. If he can keep up the momentum throughout the course of the 36-race Cup season, he’ll easily surpass his best average result of 17.1 from 2017. His worst finish this year is 18th (twice).
But for this small team, led by husband and wife Tad and Jodi Geschickter and former NBA player Brad Daugherty, Stenhouse brings an optimism they haven’t seen in years. The team’s first Cup Series venture came in 2009, but they have only won one race in the years since, coming in 2014 with AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International. Stenhouse is determined to change that.
“I’ve got all of my people working on that [my contract],” he said. “I enjoy being here and I think we work really well together. It’s kind of a renewed type of fresh air for me. Last year wasn’t much fun as far as trying to figure out the whole Covid schedule and a new team, me making mistakes and getting caught up in other people’s messes. It was a catastrophic year.”
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The mediocre season aside, Stenhouse believes his small team can continue to compete with Nascar’s heavyweights. Last year, he earned three top fives and four top 10s, but had an average finish of 22.6, the second-worst of his career.
Since Stenhouse arrived on the Cup Series scene full time in 2013, he’s been seen running near the middle of the pack. Following back-to-back Xfinity Series championships in 2011 and 2012, he joined Roush Fenway Racing’s Cup team just as they started to decline. He wasn’t given equipment with the capability of competing for wins. That led to years of overdriving his racecars, but it’s something he doesn’t regret.
“Overdriving is definitely one thing that will get you in trouble, and it got me in trouble in the past,” Stenhouse said. “But I’ve also gotten a lot of speed out of racecars that you might not have thought could be capable of that by driving it hard and past its limits. It’s gotten me in trouble a lot of times. This year, from my perspective, things that I’ve done is to just try to take what the car will give you and not try to do more than it’s willing to do.”
Now, one of Nascar’s most aggressive drivers is in the best situation of his career.
“I really, really enjoy it,” Stenhouse said. “It’s laid back, fun, enjoyable, a family and you feel welcomed and wanted there. It’s cool to see them want to build the program up and take another step forward. The last couple of years with [Chris] Buescher, they were making progress and taking steps forward. They took over their chassis manufacturing, and I felt like that really helped build their program up as well a year before I came in.”
With consistent backing from major food retailer Kroger, Stenhouse doesn’t have to worry about bringing in extra sponsorship dollars. The only company that followed him over from Roush Fenway Racing to JTG Daugherty Racing was NOS Energy Drink, which had three primary sponsorships last year.
As part of Kroger’s deal with the Nos. 37 and 47 cars, the retailer allows some of the brands in its stores to be on the cars. Proctor & Gamble products have been associate sponsors on Stenhouse’s car this year, including Crest and Tide, as well as Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle. Nevertheless, the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted Stenhouse to find new ways for brand interaction.
“We haven’t had a normal season yet (since joining JTG) where you’re going to event promotions, Kroger stores and headquarters,” he said. “I haven’t had anything normal as far as that really good brand interaction with the brands that are on our car.”
The Geschickters have been part of the Nascar family since 1995, owning an Xfinity Series team. Notably, it’s the team that gave Jimmie Johnson his first Nascar start in 1998. It’s the family atmosphere that makes this a place where Stenhouse wants to be for years to come.
“When my dad and I were racing sprint cars, we had a ton of friends and family come to the track to help us on the weekends,” Stenhouse said. “My dad’s been a huge part of my career. When someone feels wanted at their job, you like the people you’re working with and everybody believes in each other — not just them believing in me, but me believing in them — it’s made it a great fit.”
JTG Daugherty Racing will also need to figure out what it will do with its second team. Ryan Preece, a fan favorite on the local short track level, currently doesn’t have sponsorship for 12 races this season, and his No. 37 car is also operating without a charter to lock him into each race. Fortunately for Preece, that hasn’t been a major issue and his performance is also on the incline.
But if JTG can secure a contract extension with Stenhouse, it will enable the team to focus on the No. 37 car to either bring back Preece or find a new driver, as well as purchase or lease a charter with more owners entering the sport.
“Tad and Jodi have a really good hold on what they do,” Stenhouse said. “This is their livelihood. It’s not a hobby. They’re not pocketing a ton of money. They’re just going to live it up. They take what they make and put it right back into the race team. This is what they get up for every morning and what they think about going to bed at night.”
If Stenhouse can win a race for this team, it will mean more to him than his two Cup victories at Roush.
Stenhouse said, “It would mean a ton to all of our employees and partners. That’s our goal. We want to run well, but we have to run consistently before we can worry about winning a race. That’s been our motto going into this year.”