Kevin Harvick wins Atlanta Sprint Cup pole; Stewart qualifies 12th

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While he doesn’t have Budweiser on his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet this weekend, Kevin Harvick still got a “six-pack” of sorts tonight at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Harvick claimed his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole of 2014 with a lap of 29.118 seconds (190.398 miles per hour), and will lead the field to the green for Sunday night’s Oral-B USA 500.

And helping him earn the pole was his returning teammate and boss, Tony Stewart.

“Smoke” himself qualified 12th for his first race since his involvement in an Aug. 9 sprint car crash that took the life of 20-year-old racer Kevin Ward Jr.

“It’s good to have the boss back,” Harvick told Fox Sports. “He told me to go with what I knew from practice, and we switched our line there in [Turns] 1 and 2 and we were a lot better on the bottom.

“…It seems like there’s a lot more ‘back to normal’ with Tony here this week. Hopefully, we can turn this starting stuff into a win this weekend.”

As for Stewart, his day began with a somber press conference in which he expressed his sorrow over the tragedy that took place earlier this month at Canandaigua (N.Y.) Motorsports Park.

But once on the race track, things appeared to get better. Stewart was among the Top 10 in today’s first practice session and he kept that speed up to make the final round of qualifying. He’ll start on the outside of Row 6 with Carl Edwards.

Back up front, Harvick will be joined in Row 1 by Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski. The 2012 Cup champion notched his 10th front-row start of the season thanks to a lap of 190.058 in the No. 2 “Yellow Deuce” Team Penske Ford.

“I was just lacking a little bit, I don’t know how much I missed it by,” Keselowski told Fox. “But we’re really strong in race trim. I thought we had a shot in qualifying.

“Obviously, we were really close. But it’s another front-row start and hopefully, we can carry it into a front-row finish – uh, first-place finish – on Sunday night.”

Behind them in Row 2 will be rookie Kyle Larson and Ryan Newman, who are both looking for wins that can get them into the Chase with two regular season races to go.

Newman is looking good to make the Chase on points if necessary, but Larson is still trying to recover from a crash at Michigan that severely dented his post-season hopes.

He’s currently 17th in the Chase standings, but down 26 points to Greg Biffle, who currently occupies the 16th and final position on the Chase Grid.

Several other winless drivers are also starting toward the front. Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. are in Row 3, while Kasey Kahne is in Row 5.

Then there’s the aforementioned Stewart, who has gained an exemption from NASCAR and is eligible to compete in the Chase should he win Sunday or next weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

Chase-bound Aric Almirola and defending Atlanta champ Kyle Busch make up Row 4, while Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon will start ninth alongside Kahne.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT ATLANTA – ORAL-B USA 500
Qualifying Results

1. 4-Kevin Harvick
2. 2-Brad Keselowski
3. 42-Kyle Larson
4. 31-Ryan Newman
5. 20-Matt Kenseth
6. 78-Martin Truex Jr.
7. 43-Aric Almirola
8. 18-Kyle Busch
9. 24-Jeff Gordon
10. 5-Kasey Kahne
11. 99-Carl Edwards
12. 14-Tony Stewart
13. 3-Austin Dillon
14. 22-Joey Logano
15. 1-Jamie McMurray
16. 48-Jimmie Johnson
17. 11-Denny Hamlin
18. 16-Greg Biffle
19. 55-Brian Vickers
20. 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
21. 15-Clint Bowyer
22. 41-Kurt Busch
23. 47-A.J. Allmendinger
24. 13-Casey Mears
25. 7-Michael Annett
26. 17-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
27. 10-Danica Patrick
28. 37-Mike Bliss
29. 33-Ty Dillon
30. 23-Alex Bowman
31. 51-Justin Allgaier
32. 9-Marcos Ambrose
33. 27-Paul Menard
34. 77-Joe Nemechek
35. 66-Brett Moffitt
36. 98-Josh Wise
37. 38-David Gilliland
38. 34-David Ragan
39. 83-Ryan Truex
40. 26-Cole Whitt
41. 32-J.J. Yeley
42. 40-Landon Cassill
43. 36-Reed Sorenson
DNQ: 95-Michael McDowell

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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