Cool: Kevin Harvick, on the Kansas 400 pole (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Kevin Harvick, who hadn't won a tour pole since 2006, beat the tricky wind Friday afternoon and set himself up to rally back into NASCAR title contention by taking top spot for Sunday's Kansas 400 (2 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. CT).
And this sport could certainly use a good shot in the arm right now... with the smell of that Richmond fiasco still lingering... and more economic fallout expected, with a lot of crewmen suddenly worried about their jobs...and a championship chase that appears down to three men just three races into the playoffs.
The state of the sport of NASCAR racing is suddenly a hot topic in some key quarters. And not for the best of reasons.
Here's what Time Magazine is saying this week about this sport: Struggling Nascar's Plan to Get Back in Gear
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Now Round Four of the chase....with a possibility of severe weather on the horizon, maybe even tornadoes. This is Kansas, after all.
Meanwhile, just what may be going on behind the TV scenes in NASCAR remains murky. NASCAR's Steve Herbst, in charge of broadcasting and production, issued a brief statement Saturday afternoon: "Despite speculation over the last month that NASCAR's new television agreement could be pushed up to the start of the 2014 season, NASCAR has informed our broadcast partners today that FOX, Turner and ESPN will finish the current term as originally planned.
"While we were humbled by the desire of NBC and FOX to start 12 months early, we now consider this matter closed and look forward to finishing our current agreement in 2014 with our great partners at FOX, Turner and ESPN."
Two weeks ago Bruton Smith, who runs the Charlotte, Las Vegas, Bristol, Texas, Sonoma, New Hampshire, Atlanta and Kentucky tracks, which host 12 of the tour's 36 events, said NBC would be taking over the second half of the sport's broadcast coverage next season, rather than wait till its new contract begins in 2015.
What might have led to the apparently change in TV plans is unclear.
The chase could be taking a dramatic turn here this weekend. Jimmie Johnson spun out Friday in practice, Matt Kenseth and the Busch brothers both spun out in Saturday practice. Johnson and Kenseth escaped unscathed, but Kyle and Kurt Busch both had to go to backup cars and will thus have to start in the rear of the 400 field. Kenseth recovered to win the Nationwide race.
This is expected to be Kyle Busch's toughest test yet in the playoffs, because this isn't a great track for him. And he added to his woes here when he tangled with Brad Keselowski in Saturday's Nationwide 300.
Keselowski ripped Busch for the incident: "I got wrecked by a dirty driver. I have raced him really cool over the last year, to be respectful to him and try to repair our relationship. I've watched him wreck my trucks...he put me in the fence in Chicago in the truck race.
"He has been pulling this crap. It is not going to last, I can tell you that."
Not only has it been a while since Harvick has started from the pole, it's been nearly as long since team owner Richard Childress had any of his cars on a pole. Harvick only has five poles over his 13-year career, the most recent in late summer 2006 at Loudon, N.H. Childress' last Friday celebration was in 2007, with Clint Bowyer.
"The most exciting thing is the first pit stall," Harvick said. "We know this race is going to have a lot of pit strategy, so that helps.
"Obviously the weather is going to change. But the car has speed; we just have to make sure it runs good all 400 miles."
Harvick is leaving Childress at the end of the season to join Tony Stewart's team, so he's got only seven races left with these guys. He's won twice this season, Richmond and Charlotte in May.
In the chase so far Harvick opened with a third at Chicago, faded with a 20th at Loudon, then bounced back with a sixth at Dover.
He's 39 points down to points leader Matt Kenseth, certainly not insurmountable, with seven more races.
However Kenseth and Kyle Busch both finished ahead of Harvick at Chicago and Loudon, Johnson also finished ahead of him at Loudon, and Johnson and Busch finished ahead of him at Dover.
"Everyone is fighting a lot of the same issues -- the tires and what you want with them," Harvick said, referring to Goodyear's new setup here.
Brad Keselowski, fourth in qualifying, says the new tires are tricky to work with: "It isn't the ideal situation, with the way the track surface is (smooth and fast). But it is probably the best we can do, given the track and the car."
Martin Truex Jr., whose future is still on hold, after the Richmond issues, says handling here is indeed tricky. "It definitely doesn't feel as good as it did here last year, when we felt we should have won this race," Truex said. "It's been hard to get the car turning well with this tire and this surface. But we fought the same thing in the spring."
Teammate Clint Bowyer, focal point of the Richmond debates, is also struggling with the new tires. "I don't know if our (computer) simulation is not jibing with what the tires show, or what. It's just something is way off. It's got to be something fundamental. I don't know what it is."
But Harvick seemed to take it all in stride.
For Harvick now a pole?
"I've never qualified well....so that's a good question," Harvick said. "But we had speed right off the bat, so we could push it.
"We've always had better race cars than fast, speedy cars."
The weather looks to be a factor here. The wind and 93-degree temps Friday....with predictions for frost on the pumpkin overnight and a chance of rain with a front moving in.
"Everyone was having trouble with turn three (because of the wind)," Harvick said. "I just wanted to get through there without making any mistakes."
Johnson, who will start third, right behind Harvick, said the wind was a plus through turns one and two. "But it made the entry to three tricky, and then in the middle of the corner the wind is coming over the side of the car, making it harder to turn," Johnson said.
The title chase appears to be boiling down to three men, Kenseth, Johnson and Kyle Busch.
But Johnson gave rivals a thrill twice Friday, first spinning out in practice, second with a smoking radiator issue.
"I just spun out trying real hard on that first sticker run," Johnson said. "We got things back under control.
"Then as I was coming in, I saw smoke in the mirror, and I could smell it. It looks like we have an issue with the radiator or something up front.
"There's nothing wrong with the engine. But it's certainly a quick scare when you see that blue smoke and the smell. I was pretty nervous."
Johnson had a blown engine at Michigan in August.