While he’s regularly been in the news thanks to his relationship with fellow Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had a relatively quiet rookie campaign on the track.
But on Friday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he made some noise by taking the pole for Sunday’s Advocare 500 as part of a 1-2 performance in qualifying for Roush Fenway Racing.
Stenhouse threw down a lap at 189.688 miles per hour in the No. 17 Ford to notch his first career Cup pole. Joining him on the front row for Sunday will be the man he knocked off for the honor – his RFR teammate, Carl Edwards, who turned in a lap at 189.021 mph.
While quick not to take it as a sign of progression in his inaugural Cup campaign, Stenhouse feels that he and his team are starting to find a rhythm in a season that has yet to see them earn a Top-10 finish.
“It’s a fast lap on Friday – there’s no doubt about it, it doesn’t translate and doesn’t automatically go into the race,” said Stenhouse. “We’ve got 500 miles here, but I do feel like the last few weeks we’ve been a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year.
“…I’ve learned a lot this year and it’s not fun not running up front and being consistently in the top 10 and top 5, but that’s still our goal.”
Edwards had taken to the high line on his qualifying run, which appeared to be the fast way around the 1.5-mile oval – until Stenhouse managed to beat him by running on the bottom in his attempt.
“I give Ricky a lot of credit for not changing his line after seeing how fast we were on top,” said Edwards. “That’s really tough to stick to your guns and stick to what you know, so he did a great job.”
Juan Pablo Montoya was third-fastest and will be joined on Row 2 by Denny Hamlin, who is competing with a sprained right thumb he sustained in the same crash last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway that broke the wrist of Martin Truex Jr.
Jeff Gordon and Bristol winner Matt Kenseth make up Row 3, followed by Truex and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Row 4, and Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson in Row 5.
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”