JOLIET, Ill. (AP) Kevin Harvick will begin defense of his Sprint Cup championship from the pole in the opening round of NASCAR's playoffs.
Heavy rain washed out qualifying Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, and NASCAR set the field based on speeds from the only practice session of the day. Knowing that weather was likely going to be an issue, Harvick and his Stewart-Haas Racing team focused on laying down a fast lap that they could fall back on should qualifying indeed be scratched.
It was the right play, and Harvick will lead the field to green Sunday in the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
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''I'm just most proud of my team for having the fast race car and coming to the track and having a plan, and doing all the things they did to (anticipate) the weather,'' Harvick said. ''They put a lot of emphasis on laying a fast lap down, just like everybody else, to get a good starting position.''
It seemed like everyone had that same plan as the top four starting spots went to Chase drivers, and 12 of the fastest 15 were title contenders.
Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will start second and third, followed by Martin Truex Jr.
Ryan Newman will start sixth, Kyle Busch seventh and Kurt Busch will go off in ninth.
Kurt Busch actually moved up one spot on the starting grid because Ryan Blaney, who was ninth fastest in practice, did not make the race when the rain washed out qualifying. It's the third time this season Blaney has been sent home because qualifying was canceled.
''What the real bummer is, is for Ryan Blaney,'' Logano said. ''That is a big heartbreaker for him. For the rest of us, I don't think it affects much. If you are locked in the race it doesn't really affect much.''
Logano had hoped the qualifying session would go off because he believed he had a shot at winning the pole. Keselowski was satisfied with the result, though. Winner of the opening Chase race a year ago, he came from the 25th starting position to earn the automatic berth into the second round.
''We will take that and move on,'' Keselowski said. ''Track position is important here, but last year we were able to pass people and get up to the front. I feel like you can get there, it is just a matter of time.
''Good cars always get to the top. I feel like we have a good car though and we will start close to the front, so that is a good start.''
The Joe Gibbs Racing cars will hope that's the case.
Although Kyle Busch will start seventh, his teammates didn't have the same success in practice.
Matt Kenseth was 13th fastest, Carl Edwards was 19th and Denny Hamlin was 30th.
It's a far cry from how the four JGR drivers have looked over the last 11 weeks as they cemented themselves as the favorites in the championship race. JGR drivers have won eight of the last 11 races, and Kenseth's win last week put him in a tie with Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the top seed.
But they'll have their hands full on Sunday, particularly Hamlin, who will start far back from the rest of the Chase drivers.
The sluggish day of practice came just one day after Harvick insisted he wasn't at all threatened by the JGR group, and he vowed to ''pound them into the ground.''
His bravado created some laughs throughout the Chase field, as drivers shrugged Harvick's claim off as his standard gamesmanship.
''He's an instigator,'' Jeff Gordon said. ''I'm not surprised. I saw a few antics yesterday. It's just Kevin's personality. I think he does it in good fun, but he also knows that there are certain individuals out there that, that can affect them and maybe give him an edge. And so, he's going to try to get every edge that he can get.''
Logano has been on the receiving end of Harvick's verbal jabs before, and said he learned quickly to ignore the driver.
''That is obviously a championship driver and he has been through stuff like that before,'' Logano said. ''The best I know how to deal with things is to speak with your performance and with your car. I am not the wittiest guy out there, so I decided to just drive the car and shut up. You just block it out and you drive your car.''