For most of the 2013 Sprint Cup season, rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been known more for being the boyfriend of megastar Danica Patrick than anything he’s done on the race track. But on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Stenhouse stole the show by winning his first career Cup pole with a lap at 198.688 mph.
His previous best qualifying effort was a third at Kansas Speedway earlier this year, but the two-time Nationwide Series champion is still seeking his first top-10 in a Cup race.
Stenhouse’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards qualified on the outside pole and said he was impressed that the rookie chose the bottom groove, where he had practiced, even after others ahead of him in qualifying posted quick times using the high groove. Of course it also was the groove that team owner Jack Roush suggested Stenhouse use, but Stenhouse said he didn’t make the final decision until he was three quarters of the way down the front stretch on his opening lap.
“It shocked me he was able to go that fast,” Edwards said, while explaining that qualifying success has little to do with being fast on race day. “Whatever works at the beginning (of the race) won’t work at the end. I think you’ll see a migrating groove.”
Edwards also said that Stenhouse has been running better than his results have shown so far.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if he wins a race — or two — by the end of the year,” he said.
Stenhouse acknowledged that his pole was the result of one fast lap and no sure sign of a major turnaround, but he did say he feels his overall performance is improving in recent weeks.
“I’ve learned a lot this year,” he said. “It’s not fun not running up front. It’s still our goal, and we’re still striving to do that.”
Juan Pablo Montoya posted the third-best lap, continuing a string of strong performances in the No. 42 Chevrolet since it was announced that he wouldn’t return to the car next season.
Hours after Kyle Larson was introduced as his replacement, Montoya ran a lap at 188.539 mph to lead the Chevrolet contingent.
It’s his best start of the season and comes after he’s posted two top-five finishes, including a third-place run at Bristol Motor Speedway last week, in the past three races.
Defending AMS winner Denny Hamlin will start fourth, with five-time Atlanta winner Jeff Gordon fifth.
Several Chase contenders will start outside the top 20 on Sunday. Brad Keselowski qualified 23rd, one spot ahead of Greg Biffle. Kevin Harvick will start 30th, with Kurt Busch 32nd.