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It was Fourth of July weekend in 2010, and just two laps were left to go at Daytona. For Ricky Stenhouse, a top-five finish -- and his very career -- was on the line.

One of many talented young drivers in Roush Fenway Racing's development system, the 22-year-old from Olive Branch, Miss. had been promoted to a full-time ride in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2010, with a championship-caliber season in ARCA plus one pole, one top five and two top 10s in seven starts the year before suggesting he was the next big thing to come up the ranks under Jack Roush's watch. Instead, the first half of his rookie season had been a complete disaster.

Five of his first 12 starts ended in DNFs due to crashes, with eight finishes of 29th or worse burying him so deep in points that he was forced to have to time his way into the field each week. When Stenhouse spun in qualifying at Nashville in June, not having points to fall back on meant he failed to qualify entirely despite driving for a team with championship expectations. The next week, Stenhouse was pulled from his car and had to watch as another up-and-comer drove in his place.

In Stenhouse's approximation, things had gone so poorly that there was a "very high possibility" he wouldn't be racing after 2010. But the Daytona International Speedway had other ideas.

In the debut of a new Xfinity Series race car, Stenhouse found a car he had a much better feel for and ran at the front with it. For the final restart, Stenhouse lined up fifth, and by the checkered flag had driven to third -- best in class of all series regulars, a significant accomplishment at a time when NASCAR's second-tier series was dominated by interloping Cup drivers.

"A top three for us was what we needed to do," Stenhouse recalled to CBS Sports. "Yeah, I wanted to win, but man, at that point it was just like, 'Let me finish one of these races towards the front.'

"And then fast forward as the season went on, we got better from then on. Any race that we had with the new-style car, we were really, really competitive and really fast. And so I think that gave hope to Jack and everybody at Roush Fenway that moving forward to 2011, we should be able to be successful. Because I felt like that race car just suited me a lot more than what we were running."

From that point onward, Stenhouse was a different driver, and a different crew chief in Mike Kelley was a large part of that. In the second half of 2010, Stenhouse had three top fives, seven top 10s and even led a significant portion of a race late in the season. By year's end, he was Rookie of the Year. By the end of 2012, he was a two-time series champion and bound for a Cup Series ride in 2013 -- as the next big thing at Roush Fenway Racing.

In retrospect, Stenhouse was the right driver for Roush, but at the wrong time. As Stenhouse won Cup Rookie of the Year in 2013, Roush Fenway began a gradual yet unmistakable descent from one of NASCAR's greatest powerhouses into irrelevance. The departures of Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards signaled a sinking ship, and by the middle of the decade Stenhouse was left to deal with the burden of a team with a winning reputation not putting out cars capable of winning.

2017 was a happy exception, as Stenhouse briefly got the company back in Victory Lane with the first two wins of his career -- including in the July race at Daytona, where Stenhouse put his stamp on the track's traditional Fourth of July race with a memorable and memetic declaration of "America! 1776! We are the champs!"

But the bloom was off the rose by 2019, and with Roush Fenway still looking for answers, Stenhouse was unceremoniously let go at season's end. He would find a stable landing spot at JTG Daugherty Racing, but not one where it was expected he would accomplish much of anything. That was, until he came to Daytona and put the team's No. 47 Chevrolet on the pole for the 2020 Daytona 500.

Without regard to the valleys Stenhouse seemed set to travel through, the eyes of Daytona always seemed to gaze kindly upon him. He had accompanied the great Bobby Hamilton to Victory Lane in a Truck Series race at Daytona as a teenager, and he continued to add memories at the track from there as his own NASCAR career blossomed and matured.

"I think back to that and I think back to the times that I had been into the speedway, through the tunnel ... A lot of great things have happened," Stenhouse said. "With regards to 2010, going back in '17 to win my second Cup race, and always having solid runs there. We always were in contention. Then you win the pole for the 500 when the President's there, you win the Daytona 500 in 2023.

"So I think going to Daytona every year is more of like a fresh start, and I always feel confident going in there from past success, but also going there with a lot of excitement for the start of the season. It's always kind of refreshing to know like, 'This is where our sport started. This is where NASCAR set its roots.' The biggest race, obviously, of the year is here. It's a racetrack that every single one of us wants to win at.

"I mean, winning the July race was unbelievable. Being able to pull into Victory Lane there -- Yeah, it wasn't the Daytona 500, but it was still a win at Daytona. ... It's been a special place for sure."

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (right) poses for photos after winning the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2020. Stenhouse's pole came in his first race for JTG Daugherty Racing, which he joined after being let go by Roush Fenway Racing following the 2019 season. Getty Images

When it happened, the belief of winning Daytona was something that escaped Stenhouse. By the time he made yet another start in the Daytona 500 in 2023, belief was something that Stenhouse and his race team were still trying to grasp. His three seasons at JTG Daugherty had featured flashes of success, including when he contended for the win in the 2022 Daytona 500, but he had not consistently run up front, nor had he won a Cup Series race since his win at Daytona in 2017.

So for 2023, JTG Daugherty promoted the one person who knew better than anyone else how to make Stenhouse and his team believe to the top of the pit box: Mike Kelley, who oversaw Stenhouse's transformation from struggling rookie to multi-time champion as his crew chief all those years ago, was named Stenhouse's crew chief yet again starting in Daytona -- bringing with him a renewal of team spirit that sprung well before they unloaded their hauler for Speedweeks.

"I really kind of felt that at the end of 2022 and in that offseason ... The shop just had a little bit different feel to it. Like, 'Hey, we're gonna go down and we're gonna do something this year,'" Stenhouse recalled. "I felt confident. We learned a lot in 2022; we were not very good. We had a spurt of races that were great -- we didn't finish worse than eighth I think for four races in a row -- and then, all of a sudden it was like we couldn't figure out how to do that again. 

"We needed the offseason to reset and really deep-dive into all the issues that we had in 2022. And I think Mike did a good job of really just kind of dissecting every little aspect of our race team. We had basically all the same guys that we had in '22, but he was just able to, I feel like, get more out of each one of us. Me included."

The morning of the Daytona 500, Kelley would take a proven page out of his playbook in getting the best out of his driver. Just as he did when they raced together in the Xfinity Series, Kelley wrote a note on to the rollbar of Stenhouse's car, just where he could see it, during what turned out to be the greatest race of his career.

"We Believe! TODAY"

The note from crew chief Mike Kelley left on the rollbar of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s 2023 Daytona 500-winning car. With a crew chief that believed in him, Stenhouse broke a winless drought that lasted almost six years in last year's 500. Steven Taranto, CBS Sports

"I tell people all the time, I think Mike has more confidence in me than I do in myself sometimes. And you need that," Stenhouse said. "You've got to have a team around you to really do that for you. And so Mike coming over, like I said, felt like kind of that 2010 moment. Really was able to change the tide and kind of turn it around."

It took the Daytona 500 going to overtime, and it would take what ended up being the longest running of "The Great American Race" -- 212 laps and 530 miles -- but it ended with the Ricky Stenhouse Jr. that Mike Kelley believed in prevailing. Rolling into Victory Lane at the end of a 199-race winless streak, Stenhouse was a Daytona 500 champion, and his name was etched into time with a mark of greatness on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Compared to the way it looked like his career would go many years ago, the greatness Stenhouse achieved ended up being much more hard-fought. Admittedly, his three career wins are a much more modest mark than he thought he might have when he entered the Cup Series. But a Daytona 500 win, and all that came with and after it -- a playoff berth, nine top 10s to tie his career-best mark and one of the best seasons of his Cup career overall -- served as a reminder that all the things Ricky Stenhouse can accomplish as a NASCAR Cup Series driver are still out in front of him.

"I mean, I definitely had higher hopes going into my Cup Series career that we would be sitting on more than three wins. I would expect us to have two or three a year, at least," Stenhouse said. "And that was just based off of the Cup guys that would come down in the Xfinity Series ... there was a lot of great competition that I felt like we went toe-to-toe with. And so I felt like there was no reason why we couldn't do the same in the Cup Series.

"But I think for me now, there's still a lot left to accomplish. And I still feel like I've got years to do that. That's what I'm excited for right now. I think that Daytona 500 win kind of got me back on track to get those wins that I've been looking for over my first part of my Cup Series career.

"I definitely wouldn't put greatness on it, but I definitely think we've had a solid career.  But I do want to make sure that we add more Cup wins to it to kind of solidify it as, 'Hey, he was supposed to be here.'"

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