Denny Hamlin figured out the knock-out qualifying system perfectly and had a fast No. 11 FedEx Toyota as he took the Coors Light Pole Award for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
During the first round, Hamlin was one of a few drivers to go out and make only one lap, with the lap securing his spot in the top 12. As a result, with only one lap on his Goodyear tires while others had three or four laps, he was able to use that to his advantage and take the top spot in the final 10 minute segment.
Hamlin grabbed his 18th Sprint Cup Series pole award with a lap of 14.761 seconds, 129.991 mph, setting a brand new track record.
“It’s fast — it’s faster than I ever imagined going around this track,” Hamlin commented. “Every new rule change we have just makes these cars go a little bit faster. Darian (Grubb, crew chief) just made an excellent call with our adjustments and the team stepped up. We were pretty strategic in how we executed that qualifying session and (Brad) Keselowski obviously had some laps on his tires put one down there.”
Brad Keselowski will start on the front row for the third straight race this season as he qualified second, three-hundreths off of Hamlin’s quick time.
“Starting is important, but it’s 500 laps,” Keselowski said. “At the end of the day a starting position isn’t relevant if you’re not fast in race trim, so qualifying well is great but not the whole world. What is important is having a good pit stall here. This track is really dicey on pit road among other things, it’s dicey on the track, but pit road is a huge challenge for the crew and the driver so having a strong selection for pit road is probably the larger piece of the equation besides overall morale and feeling good about yourself when you go to bed tonight, but, either way, I’m happy to be in this spot and proud of the effort. Things are going pretty well to start the 2014 season for the 2 crew.”
Matt Kenseth posted the third quickest time for his second top 10 start of the season, joining his fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin in the top five. Kenseth says the good qualifying effort is a result of the hard work that they’ve done.
“Without opening a can of worms, it’s my understanding that they (Penske Racing) got to do a lot of testing — I think they’ve been to all three tracks with their ‘satellite teams’ — Michael McDowell and cars like that I think in the Penske trailer,” Kenseth commented. “I think they’ve gathered a lot of information at all these tracks and was really prepared when the season started. It really shows because the first three races they’ve been the best two cars on Friday for qualifying and they’ve been pretty darn good in all the races too. We haven’t really had that luxury so we’ve been trying to look into that and figure out how we can get a little more track data gathered.”
Last week’s pole sitter Joey Logano qualified fourth, followed by Marcos Ambrose.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon qualified sixth, followed by Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 12.
Kurt Busch would qualify 13th in his back-up car as he barely missed the top 12, followed by points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer.
David Gilliland qualified 16th, followed by Jamie McMurray, rookie Cole Whitt, David Ragan and rookie Kyle Larson.
Notably, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers were both forced to take a provisional as they failed to make the top 36. David Reuitmann and Dave Blaney both missed the show as Blaney has failed to qualify for a race this season.
This weekend marked the first weekend that NASCAR has allowed teams to use cooling units during qualifying. The move looked to be a positive move as drivers were able to get in as many as three separate runs throughout hte first 25 minutes, without putting fellow competitors in danger by riding the apron to cool their cars.