Joe Gibbs Racing set to end Harvick-Johnson dominance on 1.5-milers?

At the 1.5-mile race tracks that dominate the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, there’s been a relentless sameness of late, but that may be about to change.

Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have crushed the field at 1.5-mile tracks since the end of last season. Between them, the two NASCAR champions have won seven consecutive points races at tracks of that size dating back to the final two races of 2014.

So far this season, Harvick has won twice at 1.5-mile tracks and has finished second to Johnson at the three tracks where the Hendrick Motorsports driver triumphed.

Clearly, Harvick and Johnson are the prohibitive favorites heading into Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

During Thursday night’s qualifying session for the 600, though, neither Harvick nor Johnson qualified up front. Harvick, the reigning Sprint Cup champion, qualified eighth in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet and six-time champion Johnson was 13th in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. Not bad, mind you, but not where you’d expect these two to be at a track where they’ve enjoyed considerable success.

Instead of the big dogs leading the way, starting up front Sunday night will be four Toyotas and three Fords in the top seven.

The Joe Gibbs Racing team has three Toyotas in the top five, with Matt Kenseth on the pole, Carl Edwards third and Denny Hamlin fifth. The Team Penske Fords of Joey Logano (second) and Brad Keselowski (sixth) ran well, as did Greg Biffle, who timed out a season’s best fourth in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford. David Ragan, the new guy at Michael Waltrip Racing was seventh, his best qualifying effort in two months.

For the JGR cars in particular, the improved pace at a 1.5-mile track is a big deal. The last time a Toyota won a points race at a track of this size came way back in the final race of 2013, when Hamlin won at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Overall, JGR won 12 races in 2013, compared to just two last year.

Matt Kenseth fastest in qualifying to grab pole for NASCAR's longest race

But already this year, Kenseth and Hamlin have won short-track races and Hamlin won the non-points NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race last weekend. If JGR is truly back up to speed, they could be formidable opponents to the four-car armadas from Hendrick and SHR that have combined to win seven of the first 11 races of the year.

Kenseth said he was encouraged by last week, when Hamlin won, and what he saw in practice and qualifying on Thursday. "Obviously, last year was a little bit of a down year and feel like we’ve all been getting better this year," said Kenseth. "It’s nice to see the cars had some speed. Of course, Denny won everything last weekend so we’re hoping we can carry that momentum and keep all four cars up front."

Having fast race cars helps immensely, the 2003 Cup champion said.

"It’s nice to have the speed," said Kenseth. "When you come to the race track and you’re just off on speed every time you look at the speed chart you’re in the high teens, low 20s then you know that things are going to have to go pretty spectacular to have a shot at a win. It’s nice to have the speed and know that it’s there if you do the rest of the things right that you can have a shot at winning."