By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CONCORD, N.C. -- Kevin Harvick had all but forgotten how smooth an afternoon could be when you start from the pole position and pit in stall No. 1.
But Harvick used his first pole in seven years to full advantage in winning last Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, the fourth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
"Running good and running up front, you'll probably get more good breaks than you will running mid-pack, because you'll just have more options," Harvick said Thursday afternoon before practice at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That's just like qualifying last week.
"I think that really opened our eyes to realizing, when you have a qualifying day like that, you had a lot more options when it came time to come down pit road and not having to scramble all day to keep yourself in the game."
Two things augur favorably for Harvick this week at Charlotte -- his win at Kansas and his victory in May in the Coca-Cola 600, the first points of the season at the 1.5-mile track.
"Obviously, last week went about as well as you could write it down on a piece of paper for us," Harvick said. "Sitting on the pole and winning the race is a little bit out of character from what we've done in the past.
"But I think, for us, it gives us a lot of confidence in the things we can do and need to do to keep ourselves in position to continue to race for this championship over the next several weeks."
DODGING A BULLET
With two laps left in the Kansas race, Jimmie Johnson's engine began to fail.
Johnson felt the telltale vibration in his No. 48 Chevrolet and began preparing mentally for the worst-case scenario -- failing to complete the final lap and falling farther behind NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leader Matt Kenseth.
Almost miraculously, Johnson's engine recovered enough on the last to keep him in sixth place. Instead of losing points to Kenseth, he gained five and comes to Charlotte just three points down to the leader.
"It really was bizarre," Johnson said Thursday. "I was trying to manage how hard the car was shaking with my throttle inputs. Looking back on it, I just got lucky with the parts that were failing. They decided to work in harmony for another mile and a half, where I could use a lot more throttle and maintain that sixth position."
Johnson doesn't expect his engine problem to be a recurring issue.
"We had a big meeting on Tuesday, and they walked all the drivers and crew chiefs through," he said. "It's amazing how thorough things are in our engine shop (at Hendrick Motorsports). We feel very comfortable and confident that they've got the issue sorted out -- it was in the valve train -- so we're feeling good about it."
Kasey Kahne posted the fastest time in opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, running a lap at 193.805 mph. Kyle Busch was second quickest, followed by Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano as Chase drivers grabbed eight of the top 10 spots. ... Kenseth was eighth on the speed chart, with his closest pursuer in the standings, Johnson, 17th fastest. Johnson was held for 15 minutes on pit road at the start of practice because his No. 48 car was late getting through technical inspection last weekend at Kansas. ... Kyle Larson, preparing for his maiden voyage in a Cup car, the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet, was 12th quickest in the session.