Things just don't get any better than this for a racing driver: fresh off his championship-winning season, Kevin Harvick has opened his 2015 account with back-to-back second places at Daytona and Atlanta and then one better with a win in Las Vegas to put him into the lead in the points standings.
Friday saw him continue to ride his momentum as he claimed a narrow pole position over Joey Logano for the fourth race of the year, at a circuit that counts as one of his favourites and moreover most successful. The 39-year-old has won six times at Phoenix International Raceway in the past, and claimed four wins in his last five races here.
"Obviously anything we can do here at Phoenix is fun for me because it's just a special place for me," said the Stewart-Haas Racing driver. "Anytime we come here and can accomplish something I'm really excited about it."
Harvick laid down the best time of the session in the final top-12 pole shoot-out round when he clocked in at 25.577s (140.751mph) on the one-mile, low-banked tri-oval, putting him 0.038s ahead of Penske's Logano who had earlier paced Friday's sole Sprint Cup Series practice session. It resulted in Harvick's 15th pole in 506 starts at NASCAR's top level, but is surprisingly the first time that he has managed to claim pole in 25 outings at the Arizona circuit.
See full qualifying times from Phoenix.
"I'm just lucky to be able to drive the car and fortunate to be able to be a part of this team and see what they do," insisted Harvick. "I didn't think the laps were very good from my part, but I was fortunate to ride a really fast car, and be able to make a couple of mistakes here and there and still do what we needed to do. It definitely seems like we can overcome things and make somethings happen here and there."
But despite his impressive form both so far this season and over the years at Phoenix, Harvick was certainly not taking anything for granted this weekend.
"There are just so many circumstances that you can't control," he pointed out. "There are so many things that can go wrong. There are so many mistakes that you can make. We can make some bad decisions as we go through practice and miss the balance to start the race. There are just a lot of things that can go wrong."
He certainly wasn't giving any thought to wrangling his win last week in Las Vegas and his Phoenix pole on Friday into a possible sweep of NASCAR's early-season West Coast events if he can win tomorrow and then repeat the feat again next weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
"We never talk about stuff like that," he replied when asked about the chances of making it a March hat-trick. "We just talk about what we think the air pressure and speeds, we don't talk about things we've done. We always talk about the things we do wrong and we talk about the things that we need to do different. It's never really anything about last week. It's always about next week and the things that we have to do to try to be prepared when we come to the race track."
But his competitors certainly had no doubt that Harvick was the in-form man on the track at the moment.
"He has won four of the last five [at Phoenix] so apparently he is the guy to beat. It seems he is pretty good here!" said Logano, who will start alongside Harvick after achieving his second front row spot in back-to-back races. "The only way he can get beat is him screwing up ... Sounds like it will take a mistake or crash or strategy call.
"Honestly, we work hard to make our cars faster than his and we have been getting closer," Logano continued. "I feel like the last three times we have been here we have been a second place car. That next step is a pretty big step to try to find more speed in our stuff.
"It seems the long run is where he beats us all the time," Logano pointed out. "The long run his car takes off and other cars fall off. We can usually hang on the short run. We will hope for a late race restart or something and hopefully we are toward the front and will race really hard."
"He's human like anyone else," Logano insisted. "He's beatable, believe me. We just have to figure out the way to do it. I feel plenty confident in my team that we can do it. We have to work hard and try to figure it out. He knows something running here: he just knows what he needs in the race car, whether he's figuring that out in practice or it is a setup thing."
"The #4 car is just on a roll," added Ganassi's Jamie McMurray, who qualified in third place on the grid for Sunday's CampingWorld.com 500. "It stinks to be a part of it and have to finish behind him, but it's pretty awesome to see the results that team is having. So, congratulations to them.
"We were good from the time we unloaded and I thought we did a good job there," McMurray continued. "We just needed a little bit more. We've done really well on qualifying, we've made the final round in every session [this year so far]. And we've actually really raced really well [but] we've had a few unlucky instances ... This is a track position race. Certainly qualifying well gives you a good pit stall and you've just got to try to stay up front all day."
McMurray will be starting alongside Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, with Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing) and Brad Keselowski (Penske) lining up on the third row. Kenseth's JGR team mate netted seventh place and will start alongside Harvick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch who is aiming to make his first start of the year after his brief suspension over allegations of domestic abuse.
"It was good just to get back in the seat and shake hands with all the guys," said Busch of his first day back at school. "Having the support of Stewart-Haas it's been like family, then to see the other crew members that I know and some that I don't know who shake my hand and say 'welcome back.' It feels good.
"It was fun to get back out there and feel the car through the three sessions again. My whole career there's been that one lap, you go for it, and it's a one-and-done type event. So, to get back in the sequence of knock-out qualifying, that was what I think ultimately, led to us being just a little bit off the top speed. It's up to me to digest how to go through the three sessions. But overall, it was just a pleasant day with overwhelming support from the team and the garage area."
Busch added his own plaudits for his team mate's pole winning position on Friday: "Kevin Harvick is in one of the strongest sequences that I've ever seen in our sport and I've got a teammate car to his. So, it's really up to me to try to keep up with him. Overall, I'm pleased with how I was able to get back in the seat and show some speed and now you've got to work on those little things that pay dividends at the end of these races on Sunday."
The fifth row was an all-Hendrick Motorsports affair with Kasey Kahne lining up alongside Jeff Gordon, but it was an oddly muted and mixed day for the squad with Dale Earnhardt Jr. left in 16th place and Jimmie Johnson even further back in 20th after both drivers missed the final round cut-off.
"Every week so far this year we've been right there in the top ten, maybe a little better, so I'm really happy," said Kahne, who is marking his 400th Sprint Cup start this weekend. "I was surprised when they told me that this week! It's kind of crazy how many starts I've had. I've enjoyed it. We've won some races and enjoyed all the racing and traveling and all those things. It's a lot more than I thought."
"It looks like the #5 is running real good, so maybe we can learn a little bit from those guys and apply it to ours," acknowledged a less-happy Johnson. "We just unfortunately didn't have the pace today. We were a little puzzled by that. We will go to work and figure out what to do tomorrow.
"We knew we didn't have a shot at the pole, but we thought we could get to the third round," he admitted. "A little disappointed we didn't."
Instead, the final two spots in the pole shoot-out round went to two of the younger drivers in the field, RCR's Austin Dillon and Ganassi's Kyle Larson who rounded out the top 12. Just missing the cut by 0.015s was JGR's David Ragan, standing in for the injured Kyle Busch, who will instead have to settle for starting in 13th place alongside Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. will start in 15th place in the #78 Furniture Row Racing Chevy having just squeaked into the second round of qualifying after finishing the first round in a dead heat for the final transfer spot with Denny Hamlin in the fourth of the JGR cars.
"We didn't leave ourselves enough time to make another run, which we shouldn't have had to do anyway," said Hamlin, who lost out on progressing thanks to a tiebreaker that came down to championship points. "The car was just too loose the first run."
"We wanted to make to the last round at least," said Truex, admitting that he was unhappy with his qualifying performance. "We were off a little bit in practice. We were kind of experimenting with a new package for us on short tracks. Just never could quite get it right.
"In hindsight we probably should have bailed on it earlier, but we wanted to give it a true effort and we did that," he continued. "We were pretty far off the first round. We made some big adjustments after the first round and then we ran twice in the second. Got faster each time, just didn't have enough. Just really fought being tight in 3 and 4."
Among other notable qualifying results, SHR co-owner Tony Stewart will start Sunday's race from 17th place alongside Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers, while AJ Allmendinger will take the green flag in 22nd place in the #47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevy one spot ahead of SHR's Danica Patrick. RFR's Trevor Bayne was the slowest car to make the grid based on peed, while Brett Moffitt (Front Row Racing) and JJ Yeley (BK Racing) were among those forced to rely on owner points and will start from 38th and 40th places respectively.
This week there was no repeat of a backlog of cars trying to get through technical inspection of qualifying that had blighted the second round of the year at Atlanta Motor Speedway, thanks to changes made by NASCAR that included allowing cars to complete the process out of order and also the new threat of a deduction of practice track time if they fail inspection and have to repeat the process more than twice. As it turned out Harvick's #4 was among those that did have to go through twice, apparently with issues relating to the rear-camber that had been set up back at the SHR factory before the haulers had set off for the West Coast more than a week ago
"These cars were done a long time ago To do it right, you need to get it ready at the shop. Our car for next week is the same way – it's already done," said Harvick's crew chief Rodney Childers. "Honestly, we've got to give ourselves a little more leeway."
In the end the only team that failed more than three times was the #83 Toyota driven by Matt DiBenedetto, which means that the BK Racing driver will miss 15 minutes of practice time next weekend at Auto Club Speedway. He sill qualified for this week's race in 35th position. Premium Motorsports's Tanner Berryhill failed to make the grid for what would have been his Sprint Cup debut, with veteran Travis Kvapil also losing out and going home early in the #44 Team XTREME Racing entry.
See full qualifying times from Phoenix.
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed