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Danica Patrick's boyfriend won the pole.
"Danica's boyfriend won the race," is how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. projected in preseason that any accomplishment by him would be billed this year.
He hasn't won at Cup level yet, but he did lead Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards in a front-row sweep Friday for Sunday's Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN).
With a speed of 189.688 mph, Stenhouse knocked Edwards off the pole late in qualifying. Edwards earlier had run 189.021.
Lame-duck driver Juan Pablo Montoya was third fastest in a Chevrolet, at 188.532. Team owner Chip Ganassi announced earlier in the day that Montoya will be replaced by young Kyle Larson in 2014.
As for the new "zone tread" tires brought to Atlanta by Goodyear this weekend, Montoya indicated there hadn't been enough practice to tell how they'd behave on full runs Sunday.
But at first impression, "They seem really good, and when they're new they're really good," Montoya said. "When they're brand-new, you have a ton of grip and a lot of stability."
-- Ed Hinton
There's your qualifying grid... @StenhouseJr takes the pole at Atlanta! #NASCAR— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) August 30, 2013
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Greg Biffle's first thought about the revolutionary new tire Goodyear has brought to Atlanta this weekend was, "How come we didn't do that a long time ago?"
The zone-tread tire is what Goodyear engineers call a "melded compound" with a surface that is soft for grip and fall-off on the outside, with the material transitioning to tough on the inside, to withstand the heat that causes many tire failures.
The dual objective is more side-by-side racing and fewer blowouts.
"There's a lot of commonsense approach to what they're using," said Ryan Newman, who can look at it from an engineer's perspective.
"Here at Atlanta, it's the best/worst-case scenario," Newman continued. "Because this is the toughest track we have on tires. The strength of that zone-tread tire is the durability of it. … This new [Gen-6] car is definitely the most challenging we've had on tire durability."
To Biffle, the concept makes so much sense that "I wish I'd thought of that," he said. "Sometimes it's so simple … I'm really excited about the opportunity to run that tire. It's going to be a great thing.
"We're thinking it can provide more grip and tighter wear and fall-off, yet still have the safety of not getting too hot and blowing out, or getting the inside bead too hot."
-- Ed Hinton
Felt pretty good in the car. And shes fast!— Martin Truex Jr. (@MartinTruexJr56) August 30, 2013
Being a lame duck is one thing. Being a lame duck in a dogfight is quite another.
Here's Kurt Busch, who Tuesday announced he's headed for Stewart-Haas Racing next year, in a furious battle for a Chase berth with three other drivers and a fourth in striking distance.
"It's tough to have the present to work on, and try to get Furniture Row in the Chase, and then the future with Stewart-Haas Racing," Busch said Friday. "It's tough to balance it all, but it was nice to do the announcement Tuesday. It's exciting to have the future set xxxx but at the same time it gives you a breath of fresh air coming to the track and kick butt these next two weeks with the Furniture Row guys.
"I think the most important two races in the No. 78 car's history are these next two."
That would be Sunday's Advocare 500 here, and then the Sept.7 regular-season closer at Richmond.
Busch currently is 12th in points, six points behind 10th-place Joey Logano and two behind 11th-place Brad Keselowski. Busch doesn't have a win, meaning 10th would be his cutoff point for making the Chase unless he wins here or at Richmond. Logano has one win, and Keselowski none.
From behind Busch in the standings, Jeff Gordon is lurking just five points back and Martin Truex Jr. 16 points back.
But Atlanta has been a good track for Busch. He has three wins here, the latest being in 2010. The abrasive surface makes for fast tire wear and demands a lot of slipping and sliding -- just Busch's style.
"Right now I see the Penske cars [Logano and Keselowski] as the two we are racing heads up," Busch said.
And if the one-car Furniture Row team should make the Chase?
"I hate to play the 'what if' but 'what if' in this case is good 'what if,' " he said. "Just the speed we've had at all the racetracks, the diversified racetracks this year, I think we will be great in the Chase. I think we can put up a good showing."
-- Ed Hinton
That concludes the 1st #NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at @amsupdates, @keselowski was fastest with a speed of 190.071 mph— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) August 30, 2013
Matt Kenseth is locked into what will be his eighth Chase in 10 playoffs, but he has never gone in with glowing optimism. Even now, upon his strongest arrival ever (five wins, which will give him the top seed unless Jimmie Johnson wins one or Kyle Busch wins both of the next two races), Kenseth is only cautiously optimistic.
"I feel a lot better this week after winning last week [at Bristol], and I think we had a pretty good test this week at Chicago [site of the Chase opener on Sept. 15]," Kenseth said.
"I feel pretty confident right now," he continued. "I feel like we have a really good race team [in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing]. Right now, we're really on top of our game on pit road, and with car prep and the rest of the stuff.
"I feel good about all that" -- but, er, uh, harrumph -- "but you have to perform each and every week once you get there … You have to put together 10 strong, solid weeks, for sure."
If Kenseth is perennially gun-shy going into the Chase, it's because he's never won one. Indeed, Kenseth in 2003 was the last Cup champion to win it under the old, full-season points format.
But his spectacular opening year with JGR indicates this may be Kenseth's best chance yet under the Chase format.
When he decided to leave Roush Fenway last offseason, "I really felt as good about it as I could possibly feel about it, honestly," he said. "It wasn't a hard decision … I felt 100 percent confident it was the right thing for me, and obviously I still feel that way. It's been a great season."
-- Ed Hinton
Chip Ganassi shares a few words with new Sprint Cup Series driver @KyleLarsonRacin earlier @amsupdates #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/CHWESmGfpG— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) August 30, 2013
Owner Chip Ganassi made it official Friday that 21-year-old Kyle Larson will replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in 2014.
Larson, who is of Japanese-American descent, becomes the first graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program to get a full-time ride at the Cup level.
"Certainly we believe Kyle is the future of the sport," Ganassi said, reading from prepared remarks. "He's a unique talent. And let me be clear that this was a racing decision. We thought Kyle was the best short-term and long-term fit for the team.
"Kyle was our first choice. We did not offer any deals to any other drivers."
Larson, who began racing sprint cars at age 14, has rapidly built a reputation as one of NASCAR's most versatile drivers. This season alone, he has raced 76 times in 10 different type cars, winning 12 times. He is currently eighth in the Nationwide Series points standings.
"I think I can do OK," Larson said with his typically pleasant but stoic face. "There are going to be growing pains, I'm sure. But I think I'll learn a lot, and mature as a driver and as a person."
"Am I counting on winning races [with Larson] next year?" Ganassi repeated a reporter's question. "That's a good question. I don't know. I think Kyle's the kind of driver who, when he sees opportunity in front of him, he takes it. If that means it's a win, hey, great.
"But there's no pressure for him to win his first year out. The kid's done great every step of his career. I don't see why this should be any different."
-- Ed Hinton
#29rollin http://t.co/T5LI59uAzt— RCR 29 Cup Team (@RCR29KHarvick) August 30, 2013
Brad Keselowski reckoned Friday that here, Sunday, there would have been a bigger tire debacle than NASCAR's most notorious one ever, at Indianapolis in 2008, if Goodyear hadn't gotten its revolutionary compound ready for this weekend.
"We were looking at five- to 10-lap runs [per set] and a scenario that was probably worse than what we had at Indianapolis," said Keselowski, who participated in a recent tire test at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "This tire came in and, knock on wood, saved the day at the test session."
Many observers believe the '08 mess at Indy devastated fan enthusiasm for the Brickyard 400, and attendance has never recovered.
Here, "The tire essentially got, I don't want to say rushed into production, but brought in by necessity," Keselowski said, "because last year's tire with this year's car, this year's speeds, this year's cambers, this year's increased under-the-hood temperatures, was completely incompatible with the track."
Sunday's Advocare 500 here is the only race scheduled for the new tire thus far, but the compound may be used at Kansas City in October.
-- Ed Hinton