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

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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