Denny Hamlin climbs from his car Friday after qualifying on the pole for Saturday night's IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — For the most part, 2013 has been a season to forget for Denny Hamlin.
But the defending IRWIN Tools Night Race winner had a lap to remember Friday, and it put him on the pole for Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, who missed five races earlier this season with a back injury, ran a 14.878-second lap, just enough to edge out Kurt Busch for the pole. Carl Edwards qualified third with Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth rounding out the top five.
It was Hamlin's fourth pole of the season and the 16th of his career.
Friday’s qualifying session was anything but routine. Several drivers, including Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, lost control of their cars as they rode the high line around the half-mile speedway.
“It was kind of a nerve-wracking kind of a lap where you know you’ve got to drive it to a certain speed and hope you’ve got the cushion there to lean on,” Hamlin said. “We hit it just right and were able to get the pole.”
Kurt Busch’s trip to the outside of the front row was an adventurous one. He wrecked his No. 78 Chevy during the second practice session on Friday afternoon, forcing his team to spend and hour and a half repairing right-side damage.
Busch was barely able to get through inspection and onto the grid before his turn to qualify, but once he got on the track, he turned a lap of 14.901 that left him about two-hundredths of a second behind Hamlin.
“Today was a very eventful Friday for us,” Busch said. “We pancaked the right side, just enough to where we had to quit practice and work on the car for the last half-hour. It’s been great to go into an old-school thrash like we did today and come out with an outside pole.”
Kurt’s younger brother was not so fortunate. Kyle Busch won the Nationwide Series pole Friday afternoon and had a fast car during both Sprint Cup practice sessions, but none of that translated to Cup qualifying.
Kyle spun his car on the first qualifying lap, but regrouped in time to drive the wrong way around the track back to the start-finish line to build up some speed for his second lap. That didn’t go much better: Busch’s No. 18 Toyota bobbled in the high groove before spinning into the outside wall. He’ll start Saturday night's race 43rd.
Even before qualifying started, Kyle Busch wasn’t too crazy about racing around BMS in the high groove.
“They ruined this racetrack when they ground it so now there’s no bottom groove,” he said. “It’s all top. As soon as you get up in the top and run your right sides in the smooth ground stuff, it’s two-tenths faster. But you’re fighting on the razor’s edge, because if you overstep that boundary, you’re in the fence.”
Kurt Busch said he ran only 95 percent on the qualifying lap that landed him second, adding that it was hard to find the edge of the racing groove.
“The edge is tough,” he said. “I actually asked if I could go out there and walk the bank in (between turns) 3 and 4. We’re all out there in the high groove, but when you put your right sides in the marbles, you’re pancaked.”
Edwards, who is relatively safe when it comes to making the Chase for the championship, was excited to get a good starting spot and said he will look to experiment with some different things as he shoots for a win.
“The first step for us was to qualify well, and that was a really good lap for us,” Edwards said. “We didn’t go that fast in practice. I was disappointed to see these guys out-qualify us, but I’m really excited about this race.”
Mark Martin, subbing for Tony Stewart in the No. 14, will start 11th, one spot ahead of defending series champion Brad Keselowski. Johnson will start 13th.