The 2014 Sprint Cup season hasn't been kind to Kevin Harvick. Friday's qualifying for the Bojangles' Southern 500 might be the start of changing that.
Harvick captured his first pole of the season at Darlington's late-afternoon session with an average speed of 183.479 mph and time of 26.802 seconds. He was more than four-hundredths of a second better than Joey Logano, who will start opposite Harvick on the front row.
The No. 4 Chevrolet was a bit of an outlier at the top of the starting grid. Following Harvick, four straight Ford drivers round out the top five before another Chevy. It wasn't until Kyle Busch in eighth place that a Toyota showed up on the starting grid at one of the most hallowed tracks in motorsports.
|Position||Car No.||Driver||Best Speed||Best Time||Behind|
|2||22||Joey Logano||183.049||26.865||- 0.063|
|3||43||Aric Almirola||182.946||26.880||- 0.078|
|4||9||Marcos Ambrose||182.485||26.948||- 0.146|
|5||2||Brad Keselowski||182.059||27.011||- 0.209|
|6||1||Jamie McMurray||182.019||27.017||- 0.215|
|7||31||Ryan Newman||181.985||27.022||- 0.220|
|8||18||Kyle Busch||181.763||27.055||- 0.253|
|9||24||Jeff Gordon||181.756||27.056||- 0.254|
|10||11||Denny Hamlin||181.548||27.087||- 0.285|
(Full results at NASCAR.com)
Despite his status as an outlier, Harvick will be more than happy to start up front. The 38-year-old driver, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, has had a difficult time making the adjustment. Other than a dominant win in Phoenix, it's been a bit of a mess—especially over the past five races.
Harvick has just one top-10 finish since his victory, finishing 36th or worse in the four other races. Stewart-Haas has been a bit of an up-and-down outfit all season long, but Harvick has been an especially big disappointment. Expected to compete for a title after years of hanging around with Richard Childress, Harvick is 121 points behind Jeff Gordon overall and 109 points back of Carl Edwards—the leader among race winners.
"(The team has) dealt with a lot of bad luck and they just keep fighting through it and putting fast race cars on the track," Harvick said, per
Kevin Harvick wins a pole position for only the second time in the last eight years. #NASCAR— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) April 11, 2014
Overall, it was a stellar day for Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola is joined on the second row by teammate Marcos Ambrose, who was a good bit behind the leaders in his best lap. This is Ambrose's best start of the season. He'll still have an uphill climb if he hopes to capture his first oval win on the NASCAR circuit, but it's nonetheless a promising start for the legendary outfit.
Meanwhile, it doesn't look like Logano's hot streak is stopping anytime soon. The 23-year-old, coming off of a win Monday at Texas, is in fourth place in the standings and has gotten back into form following frustrating outings at Bristol and California. He's also established himself as perhaps NASCAR's premier qualifier. Each of the last seven races has seen the No. 22 start in the first five rows.
It was decidedly not a great afternoon for Rick Hendrick. Only Gordon (eighth place) managed to qualify in the top 10, while Kasey Kahne (22nd) and Jimmie Johnson (26th) were outside of the top 20. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will hope to atone for his fiery Texas crash by starting 15th.
"This is going to be a tough place to come rebound, but we are going to give it our best," Earnhardt told Gluck. "I'm just glad to be back at the track. Go ahead and get a race or two in the bank and put it behind us."
15th at Darlington? Not 1 of my best tracks so I'll take it. Like our stuff n race trim anyways. 500 more miles to go. 👊— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 11, 2014
Johnson, typically a Darlington master, continued his series of shaky 2014 efforts. His car was extremely tight in Turns 3 and 4, leading to a disappointing first-round exit from qualifying. Nick DeGroot of Motorsport.com also noted the failures of Matt Kenseth, who will start 25th:
Wow...defending Darlington winner Matt Kenseth & JIMMIE JOHNSON knocked out in round 1 of qualifying! Will start 25th & 26th. #NASCAR— Nick DeGroot (@ndegroot89) April 11, 2014
Also having a difficult afternoon were the non-Harvick drivers at Stewart-Haas. Tony Stewart ran 23rd for his qualifying effort, while Danica Patrick is 10 spots further back. Kurt Busch in 13th and Harvick are bright spots, though.
Both Stewart and Patrick haven't been able to get into a rhythm all season. Stewart has only two top-five finishes thus far. He started on the pole and led 74 laps last week in Texas but fell late in the race to cross the start-finish line in 10th place.
Patrick lacks a top-10 finish entirely. Her best run of the year was 14th at California, and the only two led laps of her season came at Daytona. The Stewart-Haas Twitter feed acknowledged she had massive issues with handling throughout her run:
.@DanicaPatrick will take another run. Crew made a track bar and air pressure adjustment to help her tight-handling race car.— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) April 11, 2014
Regardless of how the cars felt on Friday, there will undoubtedly be some adjustments needed for all 43 cars that made the field. (David Reutimann was the only driver who failed to qualify.)
The Bojangles’ Southern 500 is set to go under the lights Saturday night, and while the drivers got some experience in the dusk in qualifying, it will pale in comparison to the late-night finish. We'll just have to see if Harvick and his crew are able to find a sweet spot for a second straight day.
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