CONCORD, N.C. — Kevin Harvick has already proven he’s a factor at Charlotte Motor Speedway, especially during night races. With the top starting spot Saturday night, he’ll be tough to beat in the opening race of the second round of NASCAR’s playoffs.
Harvick turned a lap at 196.029 mph in a Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet to earn the top starting spot in Thursday night qualifying. He edged Alex Bowman, the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is not racing for the championship.
It is Harvick’s first pole of the season.
“I think any time you can eliminate track position, that’s definitely a bonus for us,” he said. “This hasn’t really been our strongest day all year, qualifying day, in general has not been very good for us. So, to see the speed that the car immediately had … I’m just really proud of the guys who will hopefully catapult us in the right direction to get the night started right.”
Chase Elliott qualified third and was followed by Kyle Busch, the highest qualifying Toyota driver, Tony Stewart and AJ Allmendinger.
Martin Truex Jr., winner of two of the first three Chase races, qualified seventh.
He was followed by Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, the top qualifying Ford driver, and Jimmie Johnson as Chase drivers took eight of the top 11 spots in Thursday night qualifying.
Kasey Kahne qualified 12th as all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers made the final round of qualifying.
But it was Harvick, with his fast lap, who stole the spotlight.
Harvick, the 2014 champion, has been looking forward to racing at Charlotte and a potential automatic berth into the third round of the Chase. Harvick has three career points victories at Charlotte, including the October race during his championship season. That victory pushed Harvick into the round of eight of the Chase.
He’s also has had success racing at night, and Charlotte Motor Speedway President Marcus Smith dubbed Harvick “Nighthawk” because Harvick has not finished outside the top 10 at night in the last seven races. He’s only been outside the top-five twice in that span.
Harvick has also won six times in night races on the NASCAR schedule since 2012, and he really wants win No. 7 to take the focus off upcoming races at Kansas and then the Chase eliminator at Talladega.
“It would be a lot easier on my blood pressure,” he said. “Any of these races can jump up and bite you at really any particular time just because of the fact that you just never know. Obviously Talladega has the most things out of your control. So if you can get to victory lane, it’s a huge benefit in this first round in the next two weeks.”
DIDN’T MOVE ON: Starting position isn’t all that critical in a 500-mile race, but the drivers competing for the championship don’t want the competition to get too big of a jump on them.
But four of the drivers in the field failed to make it out of the second round of qualifying. Matt Kenseth will start 17th, Austin Dillon will start 19th, Brad Keselowski 20th and Kurt Busch 23rd.
“We just lacked a little bit of speed in qualifying trim,” Keselowski said. “You want to qualify and race good, and I think we’ve got a great Ford Fusion to do that.”
Dillon was similarly optimistic.
“We had a good car in practice, we’re going to be fine,” he said.
BOWMAN COMES CLOSE: Bowman set the standard for qualifying and appeared to have the car to win the pole for Saturday night’s race.
The replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fast in practice and topped the speed chart in the second round of qualifying. Then he went out first to set the tone for the final round, only to be knocked off the pole by Harvick.
Harvick bumped Bowman by .029 seconds.
“We didn’t put the greatest lap together in the last round,” Bowman said.
It’s the best starting spot of Bowman’s career, and comes in his fifth race as Earnhardt’s replacement. He’s hopeful it leads to more work, either with Hendrick Motorsports or elsewhere.
“I don’t know what the future holds,” Bowman said. “There aren’t very many rides open for next year, so these rides might be the last of my Cup career.”
LARSON MISCUE: Kyle Larson thought he’d posted a fast enough lap to advance into the second round of qualifying.
Then Matt DiBenedetto posted a late fast lap that knocked Larson out of the top 24.
He scrambled to get back on track and run another qualifying lap, but Larson didn’t beat the clock. He’ll start 25th in Saturday night’s race.
“We were just kind of waiting and we ended up waiting too long,” said Larson. “It’s a bummer we didn’t get to go out there and make another lap.”
Larson was eliminated from the Chase last week at Dover.