CLICK: Full qualifying results from Atlanta Motor Speedway
Kevin Harvick will start Sunday evening's Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race from pole position after managing a lap of 29.118s (190.398mph) in the final round of qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday evening.
It's Harvick's sixth pole of the season and his 12th in 491 Cup races, but the first time he's managed to claim the top spot at Atlanta. It hadn't looked as though pole position was on after his initial qualifying run in the first part of the three-round elimination process left him in 16th place, but Harvick insisted that he never doubted the #4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet's potential around the 1.54-mile oval.
"The first round wasn't very good due to the driver not doing a very good job," he admitted. "But luckily they bring fast enough cars to where even with the big mistake that I made, that we were able to make it to round 2.
"Our car didn't really change that much, I just messed the first round up really bad trying to do something that I wasn't doing in practice," he added. "The second round we got into a little better rhythm where I wanted to run on the race track.
Harvick has now won as many poles in a single season this year as he did in the previous 13 years, a quantum leap for the driver who had never much enjoyed qualifying until now.
"The qualifying stuff has obviously been a major focus on what we've done and I think it's kept us in a lot of races where we were off a little bit," he agreed. "The guys focus a lot on qualifying and I think that when you are able to push the cars, and feel comfortable with it, like you can right now, obviously gives me a lot of confidence. It's been a lot of fun. It's not something I've done in my career - I think that matches my whole career."
Harvick will be joined on the front row by Penske's Brad Keselowski, who missed out on pole by just 0.052s in the #2 Ford leaving him both happy and lightly frustrated.
"We're having a phenomenal season, but I just wish it would have been one more spot instead of second to first-place," he said. "But that's the way it goes and hopefully we can find that one more spot here Sunday night.
"It's by far the best qualifying effort I've ever had here. That's a testament to the team and the work they've done and trying to be better," he added. "The car has been really fast so far as the weekend is just getting started here on Friday. I'm very pumped for this opportunity and this challenge."
Cup rookie Kyle Larson impressed after winning third place on the grid for Chip Ganassi Racing, which puts him alongside Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman on the second row for the start of the floodlit race.
"I was able to get through turns at both ends better," said Larson. "I was pretty tight in practice. The car was really good there in qualifying. I was consistent. I guess we just didn't get around the track as quickly as the #4."
For Newman, the day had been one of incremental improvements: "We needed all three runs today to get better and just as the track kind of picked up when it cooled off I got back to knowing where I needed to go," he said.
"My first run was not that good because I was questioning myself about where to go," he admitted. "Some of our team mates struggled, we just have to figure out why. Overall it was a good qualifying effort. I wish we could have gotten that eighth pole here for me personally, but a good starting spot at a pivotal time in the year for us."
Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth was the highest of the Toyota runners in fifth place putting him alongside Martin Truex Jr. in the #78 Furniture Row Racing car. The fourth row consists of Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola and Kenseth's JGR team mate Kyle Busch.
"Anytime you're the quickest car is something to be proud of, so I'm really proud of that in the first session," said Almirola after topping the times in the first round. "We just didn't quite keep up with the way the tires were gonna fall off those next couples sessions. Our Ford Fusion just got away from us a little bit, but for the last few weeks we've had really good showings for us. It shows we can be competitive at these race tracks, which is exactly what the doctor ordered going into the Chase.
Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne lock out the fifth row ahead of Carl Edwards in 11th place while Tony Stewart will start from 12th on his return to racing duties after three races on the sidelines following his involvement in a fatal regional racing accident at New York State's Canandaigua Motorsports Park earlier this month.
A notable absentee from the top 12 pole shoot-out was Joey Logano, who until this point had made it through to the final round in every qualifying session in 2014 bar those on superspeedways.
"All good streaks must come to an end, but I we're obviously still in a decent position starting 14th and we'll just work our way up there," he insisted. "Our car was tight trying to get to the bottom and as soon as I'd go back to the gas it was loose, so it's really hard to fix that, especially when you've only got a limited amount of adjustments."
Also missing out on the final round were confirmed Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson (who will start from 16th), Denny Hamlin (17th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th), Kurt Busch (21st) and AJ Allmendinger (23rd).
"We just missed it on our starting balance for the qualifying session," said Johnson, who said that a hold-up in the technical inspection line hadn't impacted his times. "We expected one thing to happen and the exact opposite did. We were eighth in the first session and I thought we were going to transfer into third but came up short in 16th."
"We weren't as fast as what we anticipated we could be," sighed Hamlin. "[The #11] was a little bit off and we thought we'd have a fifth-place car, but 17th isn't quite where we hoped for. [But] this race track you can pass if you have a fast car, we're encouraged by that and we should be okay in the race."
"I like my car in race trim," contributed Earnhardt. "We aren't very happy at all in qualifying trim. We improved on the car a little bit but still just needed a little more speed in qualifying for some reason. The car has such a different set-up anyway. I'm not very concerned about the car in race trim."
Fortunately for Earnhardt and the #88 crew, the team has two 50-minute practice sessions on Saturday to refine the race set-up ahead of Sunday evening's race. "It will be fun tomorrow to be able to work on it and tune it a little bit," Earnhardt said. "Looking at the times I saw everyone else run in practice, I like our speed. I think we can improve on it a little bit more ... We still have a lot of gains to make on our car, and it's already pretty good. I love racing here and expect to do well. We'll hammer down on it."
Michael Annett, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick were all eliminated from qualifying at the end of the first round and will start from 25th, 26th and 27th places respectively. Ty Dillon qualified 29th for his Sprint Cup début this weekend, while RPM's Marcos Ambrose had a disappointing session and will start from 32nd place just ahead of RCR's Paul Menard
Leavine Racing's Michael McDowell was the only driver to fail to make it into the 43-car grid.
See full qualifying results from Atlanta Motor Speedway