HAMPTON, Ga. — By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service — Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images photo — NASCAR’s new qualifying knockout format — not to mention the quality of his race cars — certainly agrees with Kevin Harvick.
Fastest in the qualifying round that counted, the final five-minute session on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Harvick put his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet on the pole for Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race with a lap at 190.398 mph.
The pole was Harvick’s sixth of the season, matching the total he accumulated in the first 13 seasons of his Sprint Cup career. It was Harvick’s first pole at the 1.54-mile intermediate speedway, following top qualifying efforts at Darlington, Kansas, Michigan, Indianapolis and Bristol earlier this year.
Ryan Newman (189.396 mph) will start fourth, followed by Matt Kenseth (188.996 mph) and Martin Truex Jr. (188.918 mph). Aric Almirola set the fastest lap of the evening in the first round at 191.278 mph but slipped to seventh in the last session.
Tony Stewart, returning to action after a three-race hiatus in the wake of his involvement in a fatal Sprint Car accident Aug. 9 at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park, qualified 12th but helped Harvick with advice on his racing line before the final two runs.
“He told me to go back to the way I was practicing and used to getting around the race track,” said Harvick, who had tried to run Stewart’s preferred line in the first round and failed to find the rhythm. “It was definitely the right decision.”
For Harvick this year, qualifying has clearly been a point of emphasis, and his results reflect it.
“The qualifying stuff has obviously been a major focus of what we’ve done,” Harvick said. “I think it’s kept us in a lot of races where we were off a little bit and gave us an advantage on pit road. …”
“(Crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and the guys focus a lot on qualifying, and I think that when you’re able to push the cars and feel comfortable with it like you can right now, it obviously gives me a lot of confidence. It’s been a lot of fun. Obviously, it’s not something I’ve done in my career (before this year).”
Keselowski’s qualifying effort was his best ever at the track.
“That’s a testament to the team and the work they’ve done and trying to be better,” said the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. “We’re having a phenomenal season, but I just wish it had been one more spot instead of second place.”
Kenseth led the 10-minute second round with a lap at 190.883 mph. Speeds slowed with each session because of tire wear on the abrasive asphalt.
Michael McDowell failed to make the 43-car field.