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Stenhouse relieved by strong start at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When you are a heralded two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion who won about one in five races last season, it's easy to understand a high level of confidence and expectation.

And that's precisely why Sprint Cup Series rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is so encouraged with his best qualifying effort of the season, a third-place start in Sunday's STP 400 at Kansas Speedway. It's just a question of what took so long.

It has been a frustrating and humbling start to the two-time champ's first full-time Cup season and Stenhouse is hopeful that this will be the week he rights the ship.

Last year in Nationwide, he won six races -- including here at Kansas. This year in Cup, he doesn't have a single top-10 run. 

A quarter of the way through the 26-week regular season, Stenhouse is ranked 20th in points. He has had only one top-15 run in his No. 17 Ford Fusion -- a 12th-place showing in the season-opening Daytona 500. Most recently, he has tallied finishes of 25th at Martinsville and 40th at Texas. He's hoping to change that this weekend.

"It feels good,'' a smiling Stenhouse said Friday after turning in a solid qualifying performance. "We had a track bar break at Martinsville and cut a left-rear tire at the beginning of the Texas race, so it feels good to come here and be fast.''

Stenhouse and the rest of his Roush Fenway Racing team have been fast since unloading at Kansas Speedway. His qualifying run was no fluke, either -- he was second-fastest in Saturday's opening practice and eighth-quickest in final practice, substantial improvements compared to previous races.

"It seems like when you roll off the truck with a fast car, you generally have that fast car throughout the weekend, so that's what we're hoping to obtain, and carry this throughout the weekend,'' said Stenhouse, who has only one previous top-10 start in 2013.

It not only gives him a well-timed dose of confidence, but a very real feeling that he can make a run -- not just at a top-10, but at a win.

"I want to go for it,'' Stenhouse said. "I think you just have to hit your stride and hit it at the right time. We've had some bad luck lately ? but we're in good position to start the race. And if we do everything right, we can definitely contend for a win.''

Stenhouse gives an honest assessment of why his learning curve has been so steep. After working with the same crew chief, Mike Kelley, for three years in the Nationwide Series, he's newly paired with Scott Graves in Cup. With this new relationship, he must find and cultivate a new comfort level.

He's also the first to point to small but costly mistakes on his part as well as the team's, and quick to note that you've got to up your game when competing in NASCAR's big leagues.

On top of getting used to his new surroundings, there is the additional spotlight on the Rookie of the Year competition. His primary competition is also his girlfriend, Danica Patrick, who leads Stenhouse by three points in the rookie championship standings even though Stenhouse has earned top rookie honors in four of the first seven races.

"For sure I thought I'd have one (top-10) by now,'' Stenhouse said. "I definitely think we should have had a couple top-10s. I felt like we've run well enough at a couple tracks to get a top-10, we just didn't put everything together.

"You've got to put everything together on the Cup side; (on) the Nationwide side you could get away with a couple little mistakes and still finish top-five, top-10. But everybody is so good in this series and the cars are so close, it's just not that easy.

"But I see potential in what we've got and we're trying to minimize those mistakes in the race car, whether it's me hitting a wall, telling them I need something and they make an adjustment and I go back out and figure out that's not what I needed.

"Communication is definitely key. I was with Mike and those guys for three years and that was a long relationship, and after half a year you've got it figured out. I think by the midpoint of this season we'll have it figured out. We're off to a good start here at Kansas.''

Graves, also in the midst of his first full-time Cup season, is more measured in his expectations.

"The first five races we did exactly what we were supposed to do,'' Graves said. "We went and finished every lap of the race. The last two races have been a disappointment, though. ... And now we've got some ground to make up.

"He's learning the Cup cars and how to race with the guys at the Cup level -- the difference between the Cup car and the Nationwide car with more power and things like that,'' continued Graves.

"So he's learning how to manage that throughout a race and I know from my point of view, being fairly new at the crew chief position, I'm just learning how to actually manage the race and make the right calls and decisions.

"It's definitely learning on all of our parts at this point.''

Even a gradual approach to Cup success feels too slow for Stenhouse, who is a popular personality in the garage, a well-respected former open-wheel driver and considered a likely future Cup champ by most.

"He's one of those drivers that's giving you everything every lap,'' Graves said of Stenhouse. "And that's what you want.

"I'd say as a group, we all feel like we got beat up a little bit the last couple weeks and now it's our time to go out and show them, 'Hey, we belong here and let's get some of that back and show them what we've got.' "

 

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