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


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.

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

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.