Suddenly, the NASCAR driver known as The Closer is establishing a reputation as The Front-runner.
Kevin Harvick won his second straight pole at Kansas Speedway on Friday evening, blazing a track-record 194.658 mph in the No. 4 Stewart Haas-Chevrolet and claiming the front-row’s inside position for Saturday night’s Sprint Cup 5-hour Energy 400.
Until last year, Harvick had not been a good qualifier for most of his Sprint Cup career. He won just five poles in his first 12 seasons covering 431 races and had gone a stretch of seven years without winning a pole.
That all changed when he won last fall’s Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway from the pole. Then Harvick won from the pole at Darlington last month, giving him two this season and three of his career eight poles in his last 16 races.
“It’s a miracle that we’ve won two poles in one season,” said Harvick, smiling about something he’s accomplished just once, in 2005, until Friday. “Usually when Friday goes well, it’s a good sign for the rest of the weekend.”
Harvick, who shattered the track record 181.864 mph set in last year’s spring race by Matt Kenseth, is starting to like that view from the front.
“We had a good tire test when we came here a couple of weeks ago and felt we could go back and tell everybody we felt confident in the things we had in the car,” Harvick said.
The top 23 qualifiers, more than half the field, joined Harvick in topping the previous track record. Joey Logano, who has been a strong qualifier all season, led a parade of Fords for the next three positions.
Logano was second with a speed of 193.910 mph, followed by his Team Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, 193.507 mph; and Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards of Columbia, 193.188 mph.
Harvick, since moving to Stewart-Haas Racing from Richard Childress Racing, has made a concerted effort to improve his qualifying efforts after starting 38th, 13th, 16th and 27th in the first four races
“We struggled the first three or four weeks in qualifying and just had to sit down as a group and say what do we need to do to get better on Fridays,” said Harvick, who won at Phoenix from the 13th spot. “We were having to go through traffic and do things that were making it harder than it needed to be.
“As a group, nobody’s ego is too big to say that we aren’t doing something right. They aren’t scared to tell me if something is not right from the driver’s seat. The communication is great, and everybody is doing a good job in working together. I think that goes a long ways to seeing the gains that we have made in qualifying from about week four on.”
Working overtime on qualifying also paid off for Harvick’s Stewart-Haas teammates. Kurt Busch qualified sixth, Tony Stewart seventh and Danica Patrick ninth.
Harvick, Logano, Keselowski and Edwards have wins this season, including two each by Harvick and Logano, and are assured of spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
So they might be the ones to beat in the first Sprint Cup race on a Saturday and under the lights since Kansas Speedway opened in 2001.
“That is going to be key because we are going so fast,” Edwards said of running up front. “Track position will be important here, and we will get a good pit stall and a good starting position, so that will be great.
“I really want to win this race. There is no secret to that, and this qualifying effort puts us in a good position to go out and do that.”
A year ago, Harvick won a race that was marred by a track-record 15 yellow flags, caused mostly by a new, multitread tire Goodyear unveiled for the Kansas Speedway track that was repaved in 2012.
Goodyear brought a new tire to this year’s race that the drivers hope degrades and leads to better racing. The new tire had a lot to do with the speeds on Friday, so tire strategy could be important on Saturday night.