Although it’s only been five races since his last — and only career Sprint Cup pole — he’ll concede Sunday’s top spot at Kansas Speedway to Kevin Harvick, this time.
“He’s an old guy,” said Stenhouse, who qualified second. “It’s been awhile.”
Yes, it’s been 254 races since the 37-year-old Harvick’s last pole — at Loudon on Sept. 17, 2006. Stenhouse held on to the provisional pole for 19 cars until his buddy knocked him off the top of the speed chart.
“Freak,” Stenhouse exclaimed after discovering he was second. After all, it was Stenhouse who bought Harvick a chocolate milkshake at Cold Stone after the two had dinner at Chipotle.
“Hopefully, we don’t go that long without a pole,” Stenhouse said. “I like qualifying, it is fun. I really wish that he still didn’t have a pole so that I could have another one. I am getting kind of greedy.”
The real pressure came later Thursday night for Stenhouse. Following dinner with Harvick, he had to return to his motor coach to prepare his first meal for girlfriend Danica Patrick, winner of the culinary TV contest “Chopped."
“It was the first time I cooked for her and I was stressed out,” Stenhouse said. “They had ribs in the bus lot after practice. Then I put some squash on the grille, rice in the microwave and made chicken. She said the chicken was done perfectly, so it all worked out.”
That hasn’t been the case for Stenhouse’s rookie season. The reigning Nationwide Series champion is honest enough to acknowledge that the results he expected entering the season simply haven’t materialized. Although he was among the top 15 in the point standings for the first six races, Stenhouse, who is currently 19th, has struggled to return to that earlier goal.
But Stenhouse, who turned 26 on Wednesday, has picked up his program lately with three qualifying efforts of fifth or better in the last six races. At Richmond, four races ago, the No. 16 Ford posted its first top 10 of the season. The following week at Chicagoland, Stenhouse backed up his performance with a career-high eighth-place run.
“We haven’t had the top 10 runs that we’ve been looking for but we’re getting better,” Stenhouse said. “And I want to keep gaining experience. I learn a lot every week. I learned a lot last week at Dover talking to Carl (teammate Edwards) after the race. We were fast the first run then fell off the second run and with these long green runs in the Cup Series, if you have a few bad runs you get caught behind.
“Just going through the process of what I need to be telling my guys to keep our car fast throughout the whole race. This year has been about learning as much as I can so we can apply what we learned this year to next year.”
Give the freshman credit. He has been running at the finish of every race this season. If the bossman Jack Roush has been pleased with one development this season, it’s that his rookie has kept his nose clean. And Stenhouse will have that same responsibility on Sunday with six Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers starting around him in the top 10 for the Hollywood Casino 400.
“We are definitely mindful of the championship that they have going,” Stenhouse said. “I have been in championship fights and people gave me a lot more respect when I was going for that championship when things were tight.
“We don’t want to jeopardize anybody’s championship. We will go out and race our own race but still mindful of everything that is going on and try to stay clear of it. It is a good start to our weekend and hopefully we can continue this momentum we have going.”
With seven races remaining and Stenhouse continuing to pick up speed, he wishes the season wouldn’t end. Although Ms. Patrick will decide where the couple will vacation, Stenhouse intends to continue building his relationship with his team at Roush Fenway Racing.
“We really want to end this year strong and keeping the momentum, hopefully, going into the offseason,” Stenhouse said. “That means hanging out with the guys at the shop and keeping the burst of energy that we have going now and building speed.
“I think next year will be a good year for us after having a full year under our belts. Hopefully, we’ll have a little time to relax, but we need to stay focused on what we’re doing next year.”
NO NEWS – YET
Martin Truex Jr. remains in limbo regarding his plans for 2014.
Truex, who qualified 13th, is keeping his options open while NAPA decides what direction it will take after the sponsor announced it would terminate its’ relationship with Michael Waltrip Racing at season’s end.
“I have no idea what I’m doing yet,” Truex said. “I wish I knew.”
When Truex asked if he would still be racing at 79 like James Hylton, who will retire after Friday night’s ARCA race, his answer was simple: “No.”
“I won’t be racing cars, I can tell you that,” Truex said. “Not here anyway. That’s pretty insane to think he’s going to race a car tonight, but I don’t know. I still hope I’m on this side of the dirt when I’m 79. That would be a good start.”
Jimmie Johnson qualified third for Sunday’s Kansas Speedway race.
But practice was far from drama-free. On his first lap his car became loose coming off Turn 4 and he spun out. Although he recovered by posting the third fastest lap in practice and matched his position in qualifying, Johnson felt fortunate to keep his car off the wall earlier in the day.
However, his team did replace the cooling system in the No. 48 Chevy after a plume of smoke shot from the car.
“We had issue with an oil cooler and radiator in the front of the car that created the smoke,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we got all of our bad luck out of the way for the weekend and we have good sailing from here.
“Yeah, both had my blood pressure up; especially the one where I was at fault. You don’t want to hit the wall. That one really had me concerned, but I kept it off the fence.”
218 — Races since Richard Childress Racing’s last pole with Clint Bowyer at New Hampshire in 2007.
602 — NASCAR Cup starts for James Hylton and two wins. 170 ARCA starts.
241 — Laps led by Matt Kenseth at Kansas Speedway in his last two wins at the track.
Clint Bowyer appeared lost on Friday at what he considers his home track.
“Qualifying is just a small part of what the final outcome is, so we’ve definitely got our work cut
out for us," said Bowyer, who posted the 22nd-fastest time on the speed chart but finished sixth and fifth in his last two starts at the track.
"We’re struggling. I don’t know if our simulation’s not jiving with what the tires show or something — it’s just something’s way off. It’s got to be something fundamental. I don’t know what it is."