Ricky Stenhouse: the next Cale Yarborough? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
How's this for irony:
Matt Kenseth on the pole...and right behind him for Sunday's noon CT (1 p.m. ET) Kansas 400 is the man who just replaced him at Jack Roush's -- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
And what to make of this: Fords are suddenly fast, late-race at Texas and so far through practice and qualifying here...while Chevys seem just as suddenly off?
Chevy's Jimmie Johnson won Texas last fall, and led a whopping 168 laps. But this time he never led a lap and struggled to finish sixth.
Something's going on here.
The word on the street is Ford may have gone to a new engine combination, to do something with RPM. Maybe a new valve train.
As fast as these new 2013s are -- a sizzling five mph quicker here at Kansas Speedway into the first turn than even last fall, when Tony Stewart said that T1 at 204 mph was "stupid fast" -- the RPM range appears skewed.
Whatever, Fords are much faster now than they were just a couple weeks ago.
And then what to make of Chevys suddenly so much slower?
Maybe Ford teams are gambling on engine work to gain speed....and maybe Chevy teams are going the other way, more conservative.
If so, that should be readily seen here. Will Fords finish the race? Will Chevys use the tortoise strategy?
History here says Sunday's top six should be Johnson, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Carl Edwards.
As fast as speeds are here, two key men to watch are Ford's Biffle and Chevy's Kasey Kahne. They are among the best drivers at 'stupid fast' speeds.
This season better not bet against Matt Kenseth on any given Sunday. And -- gasp! -- he's on the Kansas 400 pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Stenhouse too Sunday, because he's been struggling in this his rookie season.
"All of the Fords are fast," Stenhouse says.
And just why?
"Doug Yates and the guy s in the engine shop have been working on our complaints we've had the first few races, and it's paying off right now," Stenhouse says. "There's a lot of speed here."
Certainly something appears to have changed on the stock car tour over the past week or so.
Stenhouse could be a key indicator.
Stenhouse, this Cale Yarborough sparkplug of a racer, gives up 16 years in age and 467 NASCAR Cup starts to Kenseth. This 400, on the blazing fast, just repaved Kansas Speedway asphalt, will only be Stenhouse's 13th Sprint Cup race. And so far the two-time NASCAR Nationwide champ has not been particularly effective or notable on the senior circuit.
But team owner Jack Roush concedes the Ford teams generally have simply missed it in these opening weeks of the season.
If Stenhouse can make something happen in this 400....
And remember, he won the Nationwide race here last fall.
"This is a track I'm comfortable at, and have run well at," Stenhouse says. " because we have a win on this track surface and track configuration, so that gives me a little confidence."
And on the Danica Patrick versus Ricky Stenhouse scoreboard, Stenhouse is ahead 4 races to 3 heading into Sunday's Kansas 400: he finished ahead of her at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol and California. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
And then, maybe there is something of a rivalry right now between Stenhouse and girlfriend Danica Patrick. She got all the glory at Daytona, and she gets mobbed for interviews at every NASCAR tour stop...while Stenhouse, not a gregarious sort anyway, has laid back in the shadows, so to speak.
This Sunday may be Ricky Stenhouse's day to shine.
"You just have to hit your stride and hit it at the right time," he says. "We've had some bad luck lately, but we showed up here with a fast car right off the trailer. And if we keep it fast throughout the day, that will be a lot better for us.
"We're in a good position to start the race. If we do everything right, we can definitely contend for a win."
Scott Graves, Stenhouse's crew chief, new to the role, is learning: "The first five races we did exactly what we were supposed to do. We went and finished every lap of the race, and for those first five races we were finishing in the teens, which is kind of where we expected to be. And with that result we were in contention in the overall points."
That's a 12th at Daytona, 16th at Phoenix, 18th Las Vegas, 16th Bristol, and 20th California.
"The last two races have been a disappointment, though," Graves says, referring to the 25th at Martinsville and 40th at Texas.
"We got caught up in some of the restart messes at Martinsville; hard to avoid that. At Texas we had a left-rear tire go flat.
"Now we've got some ground to make up."
There is a world of difference between Nationwide cars and Cup cars, especially in the power. "He's learning how to manage that throughout a race," Graves says.
"And me 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."
Ricky Stenhouse and crew chief Scott Graves (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Well, yes, certainly. But this is a sport of the impatient.
And when it comes to being patient, well, Stenhouse is a bit like Cale Yarborough in that regard.
Calling Stenhouse a hard driver, when he's got the stuff, may be understatement. In fact, he's shown more patience so far than some might have expected.
"He's one of those drivers giving you everything every lap," Graves says. "You want someone who is going to just be driving really hard.....(though) sometimes you have to try to tone that back a little bit and work on more of the finesse of the car."
The team's theme here this weekend? Graves says "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. Let's show them what we've got.'"
Okay, as they say out here in these parts, 'Show me.'
Ford team owner Jack Roush: frustrated over slow start to the season. But things have picked up dramatically the past week or so. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)