INDIANAPOLIS — The season-long rivalry between Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske heads into the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Kevin Harvick will try to crash their party.
Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski swept the top three spots in qualifying, setting up what could be a showdown between the most dominant teams so far this season.
Harvick, who picked up his fourth pole of the season Sunday, already has two wins this season but was in the mix for several other victories with his new Stewart-Haas Racing team. Gordon is the Sprint Cup points leader and has been a model of consistency all year for Hendrick Motorsports, and Penske has gotten three wins from Keselowski.
“I think that we certainly look at all the Hendrick cars and the Stewart-Haas cars ... and Penske, to me, is the team to beat outside of what we have,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty sure all those groups have their best stuff here.”
Keselowski, third in the standings behind Hendrick drivers Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., didn’t think Saturday was a true indicator of how the Brickyard — or the rest of the season — will play out.
“When you think you really understand what’s going on, you never know what somebody else has in their hand — much like if you were playing a game of poker,” Keselowski said. “We think that we have the two strongest hands with Penske and Hendrick, and certainly that’s been the case to this date in the season, but you just don’t know what’s out there.”
Harvick, consistently fast all season, knows exactly what he’s got and what Stewart-Haas brought to Indy.
“It’s time to get into Chase form, and this is where it all starts,” said Harvick.
He once again dominated a NASCAR qualifying session, setting a Indianapolis track record with his pole-winning run of 188.470 mph. Harvick beat the track record of 187.531 set last year by Ryan Newman, who won from the pole.
Harvick, who had never before won more than two poles in a season, will try Sunday to win the prestigious Brickyard for the second time in his career. His first win came in 2003 when he drove for Richard Childress.
It was clear quickly that Stewart-Haas came prepared for the Brickyard with some of its quickest cars. Harvick was fastest in all three rounds of NASCAR’s knockout qualifying session, and teammates Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch also finished in the top-seven.
Only Danica Patrick failed to make it into the final round, but still qualified 14th to put all the SHR Chevrolets near the front of the field.
“We had an awesome day today,” Stewart said. “Kevin with his team and all three of us had good runs. Danica had a good run too she just missed it by a little bit to get in that final round. The entire Stewart-Haas organization did a good job.”
Landing right behind Harvick was Gordon, who will start second on Sunday when he races for his fifth Brickyard victory. He was thrilled with his qualifying performance because it puts him on the front row on the 20th anniversary of his victory in the inaugural NASCAR race at Indianapolis.
“To be on the front row, 20 years after my first win, I get excited about that,” Gordon said.
Keselowski qualified third and will try Sunday to finally win his first marquee event. More important, it would be the first NASCAR win at Indy for team owner Roger Penske, who has a record 15 victories in the Indianapolis 500 but none in the Brickyard 400.
“It’s the last thing left on the Penske bucket list,” said Keselowski, who noted Juan Pablo Montoya was brought in from IndyCar this weekend in a third Team Penske Ford to give the owner an additional shot Sunday.
“He’s all in, as much as you can be, right, and it would be a huge honor to be the guy that pulls it off for him.”
Brian Vickers qualified fourth and was followed by Stewart, a two-time Brickyard winner who easily had the fastest car at the track last month before he wrecked it during a tire test. Busch was seventh and followed by Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner who went 0-for-7 in this race during his full-time NASCAR gig. Montoya was the driver to beat at least twice before at Indy, but the victories slipped away in the waning laps of the 2009 and 2010 races.
Joey Logano was ninth as the three Team Penske drivers all landed in the top 10.
Kasey Kahne was 10th and teammate Jimmie Johnson 11th as three of the four Hendrick drivers qualified in the first six rows. Earnhardt had a disappointing run, and qualified 23rd.
“I haven’t been real happy here all weekend,” Earnhardt said.
It was a strange day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which saw Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth qualify 12th and 13th. But Denny Hamlin didn’t make it out of the first round of qualifying and wound up 27th.
“Really we’ve been over a second off most of the weekend,” Hamlin said. “Just slow. Our car is handling so bad, we can’t get anything to go right.”