Denny Hamlin and his crew pose for photos after winning the pole Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. (Jonathan McCoy photo)
BRISTOL, Tenn. — NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday was supposed to be a frantic free-for-all.
With the full field rumbling around the high banks of BMS for 30 minutes in a high-speed race against the clock, followed by a 12-car shootout for the pole, the forecast included at least a couple of smashed fenders and a pole winner that had driven the wheels off his car in order to finish on the top of the heap.
Instead, Denny Hamlin won the pole the old-fashioned way: He drove a grand total of two laps around the half-mile short track to win his 18th career pole and put himself at the front of the field for Sunday's Food City 500.
Hamlin's first lap came in the opening session, and it was plenty good enough to qualify him for the 10-minute shootout. Once Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski jumped to the top of the speed charts in the final session, Hamlin calmly rolled his No. 11 Toyota out onto the track and laid down a 14.761 lap at at 129.991 mph — a new track record — to break Penske's stranglehold on the front row.
While Logano, Keselowski and several other drivers got back out on the track in the closing seconds of the final session in a desperate attempt to eclipse Hamlin's lap, Hamlin simply climbed out of his car and started high-fiving his crew.
He knew it was enough.
"I was going to go for two laps on the second segment, but I knew the first (lap) was really good," Hamlin said. "As a driver, I can feel when 'OK, this is all I've got.' It was faster than I ever imagined going around this track. Every rules change makes these cars go even faster."
In the first two weeks of the new qualifying system, Logano and Keselowski each won a pole, and the teammates started next to each other on the front row in both Phoenix and Las Vegas. The duo seemed poised to occupy the front row for the third straight week before Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, his teammate, busted up the party.
Keselowski will start second Sunday followed by Kenseth, Logano and Marcos Ambrose, who sneaked into the top five despite waiting to run his first lap of the second session until the waning moments.
There had been plenty of talk in the garage about how the Penske drivers had discovered a magic formula in the new system, but Keselowski said it wasn't the case.
"I don't think it's that complicated," he said. "If you're fast, you're fast, and it shows through. When that's the case, this qualifying format is really easy."
For Kenseth and everyone else at Joe Gibbs Racing, a good showing in qualifying was just what the doctor ordered after a lackluster effort in Las Vegas last week. JGR put all three of its cars in the top seven on Friday with Kenseth finally getting a shot at winning a pole under the new system.
"It ended up good for us," Kenseth said. "It was the first time I've seen a second round when I wasn't sitting on the couch in the lounge."
Kyle Busch will start seventh on Sunday, one spot behind Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson will roll off 11th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14th.
Tony Stewart, who walked with a pronounced limp as he entered the track on Friday morning, will start 37th after a disappointing first session.
David Reutimann and Dave Blaney were the two drivers who failed to qualify for the race.
Even though Hamlin's qualifying effort was a big boost to his team, the driver didn't hesitate when asked if he could think of anything more exciting than winning the pole in knockout qualifying.
"Getting a win at Bristol," Hamlin said.comments powered by Disqus