CLICK: Full Cup qualifying times from Dover International Speedway
This weekend will see the first four drivers cut from the currently 16-strong NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase field, as the new elimination round format shows its teeth for the first time. With Penske pair Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano already safely through, Kevin Harvick put himself into pole position to ensure he joins them in the next phase of the championship play-offs.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver topped all the track sessions on Friday at Dover International Speedway, finally winning pole position with a lap of 22.095s (162.933mph) which was actually slower than he'd managed in the earlier practice session on the Monster Mile. It's Harvick's seventh pole in 2014 - compared to just six in his entire Cup career before then.
"It's been an amazing year for everybody on our Budweiser Stewart-Haas racing team," Harvick said after clinching his first-ever Dover pole. "Track position is huge here, especially at the beginning of the race. I've never been in that stall, so I guess it's going to be okay on that end of pit road.
"I'm just really proud of all my guys," he added. "They've done a great job all year, but particularly over the last month and just getting consistent cars, finishing races, and doing what we have to do to get those solid runs."
"The first time here this year we struggled here after we unloaded a little bit, but they had it good by Saturday. We unloaded really good this time and it has carried through the weekend," he continued. "Qualifying went well. I thought race trim practice went well. We just have to keep doing what we are doing and hopefully tomorrow we can evolve a little bit more ... It's a lot of fun!"
Harvick was just 0.072s faster than Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch, and the pair - who've had a somewhat turbulent relationship in the past - will start alongside each other for Sunday afternoon's AAA 400.
"I think we've got a better understanding this time around," said Busch, comparing the weekend so far with the earlier visit to Dover in the spring. "Qualifying obviously went well for us here being in second and it's a good starting spot for us. It keeps us upfront and hopefully we can keep that track position and have a good handling car through the runs of the race and be there at the end."
Busch's JGR team mate Denny Hamlin will start just behind in third place, and is one of the drivers currently at risk of being cut from the Chase field after Sunday's race if he can't amass sufficient points to finish in the top 12 in the Cup standings, or else guarantee his progress with an outright win.
"I expected to come here and contend for a pole and really contend for a win this weekend," said Hamlin, who dropped into the danger zone after a series of incidents last week at New Hampshire. "No matter what happened last weekend it didn't affect my mindset as far as what my expectations were when I got to this race track. There's just a little bit more pressure to perform well this weekend. So, we hope that things fall our way."
In a neatly symmetrical arrangement, Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon will start from sixth place alongside Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray, with Gordon's team mate Jimmie Johnson will start from eighth place alongside McMurray's team mate Kyle Larson.
"It is a good starting position," said Gordon afterwards. "It's been an interesting day for us. We weren't real happy with the car in race trim, we swapped over to qualifying trim and then we were really strong and went out for qualifying and that first run the car just didn't have the grip, just didn't stick the way I expected it to.
"We feel behind," he admitted. "The guys did a great job making a few changes and adjustments, I was able to get up to fourth and then we had to make one extra run on our tyres and a lot of those other guys we were competing against. I think that might have been a little bit of the difference there. The car is strong. We will go to work on it tomorrow for the race."
Three non-Chase contenders (Clint Bowyer, Austin Dillon and Brian Vickers) take up positions nine, ten and 11 with the final spot in the final round of the qualifying session taken by another Hendrick car, that of Kasey Kahne.
"I feel good about it," said Kahne when asked how he felt about his chances of staying in the Chase after Sunday. "I'm glad I still have a shot to move on and still have a shot to go to the next round. We barely made the Chase, and now we still have a shot to go to the round of 12, so I'm looking forward to that. I think as a team, we're close. We need a little bit, and if we can hit on it; I mean at any one of these three races in each round we could really jump from a tenth to a 15th place car to a top five car in a hurry."
Danica Patrick narrowly missed out on making it through to the final round of qualifying by just two thousandths of a second, meaning that she will start from 13th place alongside Chase contender Matt Kenseth and just ahead of her SHR team mate and boss Tony Stewart who will line up in 15th.
Qualifying proved a rare disappointment for last week's race winner Joey Logano who failed to make the top 12 shoot-out round for only the third time since the new elimination round format was introduced at the start of the year meaning that he will start Sunday's race from 16th place on the grid.
"We just didn't go fast enough, I don't know," admitted Logano, who this week announced a new multi-year contract extension with Team Penske. "We unloaded pretty far off today and we spent a lot of time on race trim. We got started behind the eight-ball and trying to make that up and didn't put a great effort into qualifying today, so we're gonna start a little further toward the back. We'll just work on it tomorrow and try to make our Shell/Pennzoil Fusion a little better."
Logano is at least assured of progressing to the next round of the Chase after this weekend whatever the outcome of Sunday's race, whereas for the seven Chase contenders who qualified behind him it's an altogether more nail-biting prospect as a bad result could see them crash out of the championship play-offs.
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edward will start a row behind Logano after qualifying in 18th place: "We were waiting for conditions to be a little bit better and I feel like they were, but we just couldn't get the speed out of the car there," he explained later.
"I think I either hit the apron over there or just got a little bit tight in turn one, but our Fastenal guys are not happy with that and I'm not happy with that," he added. "We'll go battle tomorrow in practice and we'll be ready for the race."
Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman will take the green flag in 20th place, with Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola and SHR's Kurt Busch lined up together on the row immediately behind him in 21st and 22nd place respectively.
Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to fight his way forward from 25th place on the grid while RFR's Greg Biffle and JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger are the last of the Chase contenders on the 14th row in 27th and 28th places respectively.
"It sucked," said a brutally frank Allmendinger of his qualifying effort. "We are just not fast enough."
All 43 cars entered into this weekend's race made the grid. There will be two further 50-minute practice sessions for the Cup field to use for set-up work on Saturday, with the 400-lap race itself scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 2pm local time (7pm BST).
See full Cup qualifying times from Dover International Speedway