Richmond, Va. — Kevin Harvick won the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series race at Richmond Raceway.
Harvick turned a lap at 121.880 mph on Friday night to edge hometown favorite Denny Hamlin, whose best lap came at 121.847 mph. After several years as the last opportunity for drivers to qualify for the 10-race playoffs, Saturday night’s race marks the first time Richmond is part of the playoffs.
Harvick never practiced for qualifying before winning his third pole of the season.
“We didn’t really fall off. I think that is part of the game here,” he said. “I think we made some good adjustments on making the car better and for me just getting more confidence in how fast I could let the car roll and stay in the throttle up off the corner. In the first round we didn’t really know what we had and ran a lap less than a lot of the faster guys.”
The pole is the second for Harvick at Richmond and his 24th in 638 career starts.
Despite not prepping for qualifying, Harvick said he expected to run well.
“I am really pleased with our car in race trim and we were able to put together three rounds and squeak through in the second round and make good adjustments to the car,” he said.
Points leader and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. will start third tonight, followed by Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Kurt Busch, Aric Almirola and Rochester Hills’ Brad Keselowski, the winner of the last three races in the series. Erik Jones (Byron) and Kyle Larson round out the top 10.
Hamlin, seeking his first victory of the season after 27 races, will enter the race 16th among the 16 drivers in the championship chase after crashing out of last weekend’s race at Las Vegas. But he has won three times at the 0.75-mile track about 20 miles from where he grew up.
“I feel like if there’s any racetrack that I have an advantage at, it’s this one,” he said.
“I wish I wasn’t in this position,” he added. “I wish we could come here honestly and have a mediocre race and continue to move on, but I don’t mind this either.”
Christopher Bell took the lead away from Matt Tifft with 13 laps to go and won the opening race of the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth in what he said would be his only start of the season. Earnhardt retired from NASCAR’s Cup Series last year and works as an analyst for NBC Sports.
Earnhardt led a race-high 96 laps, most coming in the second half of the race, but lost the lead to Tifft on pit road with 30 laps remaining.
Earnhardt said afterward he will probably run another race next year, but doesn’t want to do too much to take away from his burgeoning broadcasting career.
“I want to be in the booth for a long, long time,” he said.
Bell won for the fifth time this season, including twice at Richmond Raceway.
“To be able to come out here and win on a late race restart like that is really special,” said Bell, who won last year’s championship in the truck series.
On a night when series points leader Justin Allgaier crashed with about 25 laps to go, winding up 32nd, Bell also took the points lead with six playoff races to go.
Ross Chastain rallied to finish second, followed by Daniel Hemric.
The race was the 31st in the series for Elliott Sadler, a Virginia native who grew up about 70 miles away and regularly attended races at the track. Sadler, who is retiring at the end of the season, was hoping to capture his first career victory on the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval. He ran in the top 10 most of the race and finished sixth.