DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Kevin Harvick won his first career pole at Darlington Raceway on Friday as he looks to chase his first Southern 500.
Harvick came out on top in the first knockout qualifying session at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway since the circuit made the change from single-car laps. Joey Logano, the winner Monday in Texas, was second, followed by Aric Almirola.
Almirola’s teammate, Marcos Ambrose, was fourth, followed by Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch.
Points leader Jeff Gordon, a seven-time Darlington winner, will start ninth, with Denny Hamlin rounding out the top 10.
Almirola finished first in the second of three rounds of qualifying and set a track record of 184.145 mph, shattering Kurt Busch’s mark of 181.918 set last May when the Southern 500 was held on Mother’s Day weekend. It’s the sixth time in eight races this season the qualifying record fell.
But Harvick used a higher line in the final segment to lead the field.
“It all worked out. Knockout qualifying paid off for us today because we were able to save the best for last,” Harvick said.
Harvick, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, hasn’t been a qualifying demon during his successful NASCAR career, winning just six of them in his previous 473 career Sprint Cup races. He said his triumph Friday was simple — he had the fastest car.
“We just had faster cars to drive in qualifying,” he said. His No. 4 Chevrolet team has improved in finding qualifying speed the past few weeks. Harvick hadn’t started better than 13th in his first four events. He’s had a fourth, a third and a first in qualifying in three of past four events.
It didn’t look like anyone would have the speed to move past Almirola in the second segment, whose fast lap was more than 2 mph quicker than the old mark.
“That track record lap I actually felt like I was going faster in the third session than the second session,” Almirola said. “But the record was in the second session. It was a great lap for us and I am proud of everyone (at Richard Petty Motorsports).”
In all, 25 drivers went faster than Kurt Busch’s old record in the first round of qualifying. There were 14 who bettered Busch’s 2013 mark in the second session. The top seven qualifiers ran faster than the old record in the final run.
Among those not advancing to the second round were six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. The two drivers combined for 13 victories last season, yet each is winless through the first seven events this year.
Some who didn’t make it through to the final 12 qualifiers were Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart.
Logano is starting in the top 10 for the seventh time in eight races. He’ll try for his second straight Sprint Cup win after taking the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
“It’s insane,” Logano said. “This is the place you go to where you have the most sensation of speed. Here and Dover are the two places you feel like you’re really hauling the mail.”