When JTG Daugherty Racing downsized from a two-car team to a one-car team at the end of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, it seemed as though the organization’s best days might be over.

After all, single-car teams — once the way of the world in the Cup Series — are virtually non-existent these days in NASCAR’s premier division. Without the additional resources that having a second, third or fourth car can provide, an organization seems almost destined to suffer.

But every once in a while in NASCAR, less ends up being more. That was certainly the case for JTG Daugherty Racing in 2023, the company’s second season since 2016 with a lone Cup Series entry.

Not only did driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. come out of the gate swinging with a career-defining win in NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious race, the Daytona 500, but the 36-year-old driver from Olive Branch, Mississippi went on to enjoy one of the best seasons of his career from an overall statistical standpoint.

Specifically, Stenhouse matched his career-high for top-10 finishes with nine top-10s in 36 starts and placed 16th in the standings — the second-best points finish of his time in the Cup Series.

Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 triumph was only the second win — and the first since 2014 — for JTG Daugherty, which retired NBA superstar Brad Daugherty and longtime NASCAR team owner Tad Geschickter co-founded in 2009.

Perhaps most importantly, Stenhouse’s surprising trip to Victory Lane at The World Center of Racing provided the team with a significant momentum boost that helped propel Stenhouse to one of his best seasons as a driver and JTG Daugherty to one of its best seasons as an organization.

“Winning the Daytona 500 and being able to represent our sport all over the country was special,” said Stenhouse, who, like every Daytona 500 winner in modern times, went on a multi-day media blitz after leaving Central Florida with the coveted Harley J. Earl Trophy in hand. “I take pride in that. It was a great opportunity to promote our race team, our partners, and all of NASCAR.”

As great as winning the Daytona 500 was, though, Stenhouse and JTG Daugherty Racing are hungry for more. Above all, they want to become consistent frontrunners who contend for wins on a regular basis.

They’d also like to advance deeper into the playoffs than they did a year ago when Stenhouse was one of four drivers eliminated in the Round of 16. To make this kind of leap, Stenhouse will need to find a way to establish the consistency he’s largely lacked during his time in the Cup Series, which began in 2013 with Roush Fenway.

The biggest reason Stenhouse ultimately parted ways with Roush Fenway and landed at JTG Daugherty in 2020 was his inability to ever establish any real consistency.

For example, after earning a career-best two wins in 2014 and finishing what remains a career-best 13th in the standings, Stenhouse failed to go to Victory Lane the following year and experienced a five-position regression in the standings. The next year, he dropped five more spots in the standings and recorded only one top-five finish.

By the time the 2019 season ended, he was looking for work. Thankfully for Stenhouse, he found a job at JTG Daugherty, but his first three seasons with the company proved to be an uphill climb as he finished no better than 22nd in the standings and posted a total of 11 top-10 finishes — just two more than he posted in 2023 alone.

Last year, Stenhouse reunited with Mike Kelley — his crew chief when he captured back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series championships at Roush Fenway Racing in 2011 and 2012 — and the magic the two made together just over a decade earlier was to some extent revived.

Kelley will remain atop Stenhouse’s No. 47 pit box this season and the two hope they can use their 2023 success as a stepping stone to an even better year in 2024.

For the first time in a long time — maybe ever — JTG Daugherty is headed into a season when it’s facing modestly high expectations from those both inside and outside of the company.

While Stenhouse and JTG Daugherty might not be quite ready to contend for a championship or even qualify for the Championship 4, a couple of wins and a deep playoff run are real possibilities.

For either to happen, though, Stenhouse will need to stay out of trouble and finish races — something he’s struggled mightily to do throughout large chunks of his career in NASCAR’s premier series.

If Stenhouse can find a way to keep his nose clean and the communication lines and chemistry between the driver and crew chief remain strong, JTG Daugherty could be in line for the best season in its 16-year history as an organization in NASCAR’s top division.