By Jacob Seelman, Special Contributor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Twenty-two years after earning a Daytona 500 victory that he “couldn’t even celebrate,” Mike Kelley was finally able to truly enjoy and soak in the aftermath of the Great American Race.
Kelley was the car chief for Michael Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Inc. on “Black Sunday” in 2001, when NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt – Kelley’s boss at the time – lost his life in a final-lap crash while Waltrip ended a 462-race winless drought with a breakthrough triumph on the sport’s biggest stage.
The events of that day are indelibly etched into the minds and hearts of fans and industry members worldwide, Kelley included. It marked a turning point in the sport’s history, but it also served as a dichotomy of emotion for everyone involved in the finish.
On Feb. 18, 2001, Kelley earned what at the time was the biggest win of his career in motorsports. It was a win, however, that was forever marred by the immense tragedy that took place in turn four at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
Sunday night, 22 years and one day removed from that experience, Kelley was able to return to victory lane at the World Center of Racing as a winner of the Daytona 500 again.
This time, there was no sadness, only joy. This time, instead of losing a dear friend, Kelley was able to celebrate with a dear friend and appreciate the accomplishment they’d been able to achieve together.
“Man, it’s so different because of both situations,” Kelley said when asked by Kickin’ the Tires to compare Sunday’s Daytona 500 triumph to his 2001 win with DEI. “Working at DEI with Michael was such a great opportunity for me. But we didn’t get to celebrate that day. We won the race and yet our boss died over there in turn four. That’s kind of bothered me for a long time.
“To get a chance [to experience winning the Daytona 500 again] – I’ve come back every year since 2001 believing I would have another opportunity, and every time I drove out of that tunnel in February, I’d always have to tell myself, ‘Well, we’ll be back in July and we’ll have another shot,” continued Kelley, whose win Sunday was his first in 73 career Cup Series races as a crew chief. “It’s not the 500 when you come back here over the summer, but it still means a lot. Then you leave in July, or August now, and come back in February and say, ‘All right, it’s the 500 again. Here we are.’
“After a while, you start questioning yourself and why you keep doing it, but you still drive into that tunnel every year. I know it’s probably the same for [the media] as it is for us. We drive into that tunnel, and we’re smiling. We hit the gas, and we jump out the other side and we all take pictures of it. At the start of a new season, that’s what it’s about.
“This year getting the opportunity to go for it with my best friend … you can’t ask for much more.”
Sunday was a day where Kelley could easily have thrown in the towel when the going got tough. During the final round of green-flag pit stops, Stenhouse was copped for speeding and was hit with a pass-through penalty as a result of the miscue.
At that instant, it appeared the pair’s Daytona 500 chances were dashed.
But moments later, a caution flag came out with 19 laps left in regulation, a multi-car crash decimating the pack that Stenhouse had been racing in just moments before the field made its final pit stops.
“As soon as we got back out on the track after serving that penalty, we were three quarters of a lap down … and then I hear [on the radio that] there’s a big wreck and the caution is out,” Kelley noted. “I thought to myself, ‘Man, is that a sign? Was that something bigger than us that put us on pit road?’
“Where that wreck happened was right where we were running, so it makes you think a bit,” Kelley added. “I just said then, ‘I’m going to accept this for what it is and use it to our advantage,’ and Ricky just kept digging.”
That last statement epitomizes the whole of Stenhouse and Kelley’s relationship with one another. They won two NASCAR Xfinity Series championships together in 2011-’12, but also have spent plenty of time picking one another up during the rough times.
There have been plenty of those rough times, Kelley noted.
“We’ve seen a lot of highs, but we’ve seen a lot of lows,” he recalled. “I remember sitting in meetings where Ricky’s career almost ended before it ever started. He had to cut cars up at Roush [now RFK Racing] because he had wrecked so much stuff. I remember sitting there when they basically voted [on Ricky’s future], and not one person out of that group voted to cast him to the side.
“When I came over here [to JTG Daugherty Racing], I wanted Ricky to believe that he was not at fault for a lot of things, but to take responsibility for those that he is,” continued Kelley. “He sped on pit road, and we’ve talked about it and talked about it. He made a mistake. Those are the things we’ve got to fix.
“But I wanted him to get back to where he believed in himself, and I think we’re there again.”
As Kelley reflected in the moment, it was easy to see the emotion in his face, clouding his gaze for a few seconds as he thought about all that was lost on that dark day in 2001.
However, in the seconds that followed, Kelley nodded and offered a small smile in appreciation of the present, taking in the moment after guiding Stenhouse to the pinnacle victory of his NASCAR career.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to answer to you what this means to me and Ricky, because there were a lot of low days and there were a lot of days that it was just tough,” Kelley said. “To get to the biggest stage in the biggest series in motorsports on the biggest night and to sit up here, it’s pretty amazing.
“Nothing can make up for what we lost in turn four. But this win tonight … it’s so special.”