First Cup Pole for Stenhouse Jr.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse Jr. became the 15th different pole winner of 2013. (Photo: Getty Images)

HAMPTON, Ga. - Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrated his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup pole Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he understands there’s more for him to do this weekend and this season.

Stenhouse won the pole with lap of 189.688 mph. Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards will start second after a lap of 189.021 mph.

Juan Pablo Montoya qualified third with Denny Hamlin fourth and Jeff Gordon fifth. Defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who is fighting to make the Chase, qualified 23rd. Kurt Busch, also vying for a Chase spot, qualified 32nd. 

Martin Truex Jr., who fractured his wrist last weekend at Bristol, will start seventh. He holds one of the two Wild Card spots going into the weekend. Ryan Newman holds the other. He'll start 17th.

Danica Patrick starts 21st, her best qualifying position for a non-restrictor-plate race.

Stenhouse, who has yet to score a top-10 finish this season, admitted that Friday’s effort was needed.

“It’s finally good to get something accomplished this year,’’ he said. “We’ve not got much accomplished of what we thought we should.’’

While the results haven’t always been positive, Edwards said not to discount Stenhouse the rest the season.

“I know that they’re better than their results have shown,’’ Edwards said. “I don’t think this pole is the anomaly. I think their struggles just show you how tough this series is. The way our cars have been running, as much work as we’ve been putting in, and the communication between our teams, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ricky won a race before the season is over, maybe two of them. He should have won Kansas.’’

While Stenhouse is cautious to proclaim that his pole will lead to a strong result in Sunday’s race, he feels better about his performance lately.

“I do feel like the last few weeks we’ve been a lot better than we have at the beginning of the year,’’ Stenhouse said. “I’ve learned a lot this year. It’s not fun, not running up front and consistently in the top five and top 10. It’s still our goals, and we’ve striving to do that.’’

Others also were happy Friday, particularly Gordon. He scored his best qualifying result since he started fifth at New Hampshire in July.

“The car has been really, really good all day,’’ he said. “Gosh, I’ve been so happy.  I’ve been so thrilled with the car all day.’’

Jimmie Johnson, who will start 10th, remains on baby watch with his wife due to give birth to their second child in about two weeks. Johnson had Regan Smith drive his car for a few laps during a recent test session at Richmond should Johnson have to leave there to be home.

“I’d love for something to happen this weekend or next weekend and not Chicago,’’ Johnson said, referring to the Chase’s opening race at Chicagoland Speedway. “Everything’s great, mom’s healthy, baby is healthy and we’re just waiting for when No. 2 decides to come out.’’

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