Denny Hamlin was confident Friday he had a car good enough to contend for the win on Sunday.
But for the pole? Even that was a surprise.
Hamlin claimed the top starting position for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway with a track-record average lap speed at 129.991 mph. The previous record (129.535 mph) was set by Kyle Busch one year ago.
Hamlin finished third in the first session and made just one qualifying run in the final 10-minute session.
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That was all he needed.
“I was way more excited about my car in race trim than I was qualifying,” said Hamlin, who earned his first pole of the season and 18thof his Sprint Cup Series career. “Our car was super consistent, didn’t fall off – it’s everything that you need to win a race here.
“The qualifying stuff kind of caught us a little off guard. We didn’t make but one mock run at the very end of practice because we were working on race stuff so much. Obviously, this is a great start to the weekend at a track where we believe it’s a great opportunity for us to get a win and put ourselves in a Chase spot.”
The qualifying result Friday for Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates stood in stark contrast to the organization’s performance in the previous two knockout sessions.
Brad Keselowski qualified second – his third consecutive front-row start. Hamlin’s teammates, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, will start third and seventh, respectively. Last weekend, no JGR drivers started better than 20th.
“This obviously doesn’t fix anything from last week,” Hamlin said. “This is a totally different beast and a half-mile track, first one of the year.
“Short tracks – we can make up a little bit here and there being that mechanical grip is the biggest factor. We’ll get the other stuff figured out.”
Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, Joey Logano, was fourth fastest, and Marcos Ambrose ended up fifth. Series points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. will line up 14th.
Friday qualifying session was the first on a short track under the new knockout format and the first since NASCAR made a change to disallow teams from running cool-down laps on the track – slow-speed laps to help cool engines.
With teams now allowed to cool engines on pit road, there were no incidents on the track this week of cars running at top speed mixing with cars running cool-down laps, which appeared a recipe for a bad wreck.
“It worked out better for us,” Kenseth said, “and I think overall it was more interesting because everybody got in line and was worried about the (cut-off), or you knew they were going to make a lap and you didn’t have to wonder, ‘Hey, is that guy rolling out there to putt around to cool his motor?’
“I thought it worked out better.”
Although Keselowski still qualified on the front row, Friday’s session was the first using the knockout format in which a Team Penske driver did not win the pole. Logano was fastest in the first round but dropped to fourth in the final round.
“I felt like when we won the first session I thought we had found something between practice and qualifying,” Logano said. “Denny’s strategy was pretty good. I think watching what they did in between the two rounds was pretty impressive to me. It was a huge pick-up for them.”
Tony Stewart struggled in practice and in qualifying and required a provisional to make the 43-car field for the first time since the July race at Daytona in 2012, when his qualifying speed was disallowed for a rules violation.
Dave Blaney and David Reutimann were the only drivers who failed to make the field.