Hampton, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Kevin Harvick grabbed the pole for Sunday night's Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, while his teammate and team co-owner, Tony Stewart, qualified 12th in his return to racing.
Harvick, in his first season as driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, turned a lap at 190.398 mph during the third and final round of Friday's knockout qualifying at this fast 1.54-mile oval. He claimed his Sprint Cup Series-leading sixth pole of the season, including his second in a row. He started first but finished 11th in last weekend's race at Bristol.
This was Harvick's 12th career pole in the series. It's also his first pole at Atlanta. His inaugural victory in the series came here on March 11, 2001, in just his third career start.
"The first [qualifying] round wasn't very good due to the driver not doing a very good job," Harvick said. "But luckily, they [No. 4 SHR team] bring fast enough cars to where even with the big mistake that I made that we were able to make it to round two. The next two laps were fairly close on time and felt very close in the way that the car handled. I didn't think I had gotten everything out of the car the last run, so I was nervous as to whether that was going to be good enough. But in the end, it was."
Stewart's return came nearly three weeks after he struck and killed driver Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race at a dirt track in Upstate New York. Earlier in the day, Stewart spoke publicly for the first time since his involvement in the fatal accident, expressing his sorrow. He read from a prepared statement during a press conference. His statement lasted a little more than two minutes before he departed the conference.
Stewart was 10th fastest in the day's lone practice session, with his best lap clocked at 189.642 mph. Harvick and Stewart were the only drivers from SHR that advanced into the final qualifying round.
"It's good to have Tony back," Harvick said. "To be able to communicate and talk to him about racing and just see him start that first step of getting back to normal, as his friend, is exciting to me."
Stewart's lap in the last round of qualifying came in at 187.907 mph.
Despite missing the last three races -- Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol -- NASCAR has allowed Stewart to remain eligible for a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Stewart is currently 26th in the point standings and has yet to win a race this season.
If Stewart were to win either Sunday's race at Atlanta or next week's Chase- cutoff event at Richmond, then he would clinch a position in the 16-driver Chase field.
During a press conference on Friday, NASCAR president Mike Helton said, "This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport. As a league and our responsibility to try to make decisions that are correct and right, sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given to us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can.
"After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we've come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it."
Stewart had been in seclusion since Ward's death.
Brad Keselowski will start alongside Harvick on the front row after he made a lap at 190.058 mph. Harvick and Keselowski were the only drivers who topped the 190 mph mark.
"It's by far the best qualifying effort I've ever had here [at Atlanta]," said Keselowski, the driver of the No. 2 Ford for Team Penske. "That's a testament to the team and the work they've done and trying to be better. We're having a phenomenal season, but I just wish it would have been one more spot instead of second to first-place. But that's the way it goes, and hopefully we can find that one more spot here Sunday night."
Rookie Kyle Larson qualified third, followed by Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr.
Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, who won at Atlanta one year ago, Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards placed seventh through 11th, respectively, in qualifying.
Other notable drivers and their starting positions include: rookie Austin Dillon (13th), Joey Logano (14th), Jamie McMurray (15th), Jimmie Johnson (16th), Denny Hamlin (17th), Greg Biffle (18th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th), Clint Bowyer (21st), Kurt Busch (22nd) and Danica Patrick (27th).
Ty Dillon qualified 29th in what will be his first career start in the series.
Michael McDowell was the only driver who failed to qualify.