By Seth Livingstone
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kevin Harvick is making it look easy in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying these days.
Harvick claimed his fifth pole of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday in track-record time. He has started and finished in the top 10 in each of the previous four races and has missed cracking the top 12 just once in the last 18 starts.
Harvick's qualifying turnaround began after he could start no better than 27th at Bristol in the March race.
"It just took us a little bit to get our balance right on our cars," Harvick said. "It took us six or seven weeks. But once (my team) zeroed in on the balance number and the things we needed to make the car go fast, qualifying has been a lot better.
"They make me look like a better qualifier than I really am because they put a lot of effort into it. We were able to put down two solid laps today. Anytime you can beat the 24 right now, you know things are going OK."
Harvick was referring to the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon, perhaps the only driver hotter on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Gordon, coming off a victory at Michigan last week, just missed winning a third consecutive pole, running 131.290 mph to Harvick's 131.362.
"We're clicking so well together right now and the result is showing," said Gordon, who has been among the top 12 in qualifying for 11 of the last 12 Sprint Cup races.
"It builds a lot of confidence when you go to Watkins Glen, sit on the pole and run up front, then go to Michigan and sit on the pole and win, then come here and sit on the front row. Those are three unique tracks and it shows how good our cars are and our team is right now."
All 12 cars that advanced through the first round of knockout qualifying broke the track record of 129.991 mph set by Denny Hamlin in March. Hamlin, nine-thousandths of a second slower than his lap in March, was the odd man out, bumped by Kasey Kahne for the 12th qualifying spot.
"I don't know what it looks like, but it felt screaming fast," said Edwards, who started 12th but went on to win the Food City 500 on March 16. "It's just a crazy racetrack."
It was the second consecutive strong qualifying effort for Edwards, who started third last week at Michigan. Before that, he'd qualified better than 10th once in 11 races. Edwards turned a lap of 131.209 mph and will be joined on the second row by Kyle Busch.
Drivers were in unanimous agreement that they'll have to stick to the top groove to maximize speed on Saturday night.
"The difference from the bottom to the top is three-tenths of a second, so you're going to have to be on top of the racetrack (to contend)," Harvick said. "The problem with the high groove is that running into the back of somebody puts you in jeopardy when you have to go underneath them after they bounce off the wall.
"This is going to be a track position game, just because of the groove and the way the tires don't fall off. There's going to be a lot of strategy and restarts are going to be important because everybody's going to be fighting for the top of the track."
Among those fighting for a win with only three races until the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set will be Greg Biffle (eighth) Marcos Ambrose (10th), Ryan Newman (11th) and Kahne (12th), each of whom advanced through knockout qualifying, into Friday's second and final round of qualifying.
Rookie Kyle Larson, also looking for a win to get in the Chase, had been fastest in final practice but struck the wall in Turn 4 and failed to advance past the first round. Aric Almirola and Cole Whitt also tangled with the wall in the first round of qualifying.