Kevin Harvick scored his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup series pole of the 2014 season at Dover International Speedway Friday. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver won his series high seventh pole thanks to a lap on the one-mile concrete oval nicknamed the “Monster” of 22.095 seconds (162.933 mph). Kyle Busch will line up beside Harvick thanks to his lap of 162.404 mph.
Harvick has been called the “Closer” thanks to his propensity for coming to the front late in a race to win. He has two wins this season, but has not been able to close anything since his last win, that coming at Darlington Raceway in April. He has come close scoring four second place finishes in the races since then. But, Harvick has never won a Sprint Cup race at Dover; in 27 starts, he’s had three top fives and 12 top 10 finishes for an average finish of 15.3. Harvick though said he feels no pressure to visit victory lane soon.
“Not at all,” he said Friday after winning the pole. “I’ve been around this deal way too long to complain about top-five finishes. There are a lot of circumstances that go into winning races at a lot of these places. You just have to keep knocking on that door and then you will win some that you shouldn’t win. A lot of times you don’t win the ones that you think you should have won and win the ones that you don’t think you should have won. You just keep finishing top five, top three and everything else will fall into place.”
While the pressure may not be on Harvick the same can’t be said for Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. Unlike years past, Sunday’s AAA 400 will mark the first elimination round for NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup. Hamlin too has never won at Dover. In 17 starts, he also has three top five finishes like Harvick, along with six top 10s and two poles. However unlike Harvick who is third in the points after finishes of fifth and third in the first two Chase races and in little danger of missing the cut to move to the next round, Hamlin is 13th in the standings after finishes of sixth and 37th last week in New Hampshire. He is one spot away from being eliminated; Hamlin starts third Sunday after a lap of 162.250 mph.
“I expected to come here and contend for a pole and really contend for a win this weekend,” Hamlin said after his qualifying run Friday. “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.”
Hamlin admitted that he has a lot of pressure to finish well Sunday. He is well aware that his hopes to contend for a championship have come down to one race, unlike Harvick who is nearly assured of moving into the next round. That fact could make Hamlin the driver to beat Sunday.
“We don’t control our own destiny unless we win,” Hamlin said. “Honestly, this will be the hardest race I’ll definitely ever drive for 400 miles. I’m just going to be as aggressive as I can, not put myself in a bad position. This is the most important race of my career because it’s the most significant of my career at this point. We got to get the job done and I’m going to do my part to try to make sure we’re successful.”
Harvick started eighth and finished 17th here in June; Hamlin started seventh and came home fifth. Hamlin obviously knows he needs to perform at least at the level if he hopes to move into the next round.
“I learned a little bit of what it takes to be successful here,” Hamlin said. “I watched a lot of tape from guys that are really good here — studied them for probably two or three days in a row, two years ago–– and ever since then I took what I learned and moved it to what I do. It’s been successful. Whatever it is — it’s working.”
The full qualifying results from Friday can be found here. The full lineup for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup AAA 400 (2 p.m. ET on ESPN), can be found here.