Toyota drivers swept the front row in Friday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series knockout qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but, for once, the occupants of the top two spots on the grid aren’t named Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.
Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, posted the fastest lap in the final round to win the pole for Sunday’s Bank of America 500, the first race in the Round of 12 in the series Playoff. Hamlin covered the 1.5-mile distance in 28.184 seconds (191.598 mph) to edge another teammate, Matt Kenseth (191.489 mph), for the top starting spot by .016 seconds.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Hamlin’s first of the season, his second at Charlotte and the 25th of his career. In 13 seasons of Cup racing, Hamlin has won at least one pole per year, with the exception of 2011. Hamlin is seventh in the standings and Kenseth 11th after surviving elimination in last Sunday’s Round of 16 finale at Dover International Speedway. The Playoff field will be cut from 12 drivers to eight after the Oct. 22 race at Kansas Speedway.
Hamlin underscored the importance of starting up front on Sunday.
“For us, it’s a big bonus, because we’re in that kind of a middle spot in the grid right now where we have some decent playoff points,” Hamlin said, “but we’re still 40 or so behind Truex and maybe 30 or so behind Kyle (Busch) and we can knock a big chunk out of that if we run up front in the first two stages.
“So we’ve got the starting spot to do it. We need to log all the points we can while we have the track position, and I’m glad we’re starting off this round this way, and hopefully our car is good enough to stay there to get those points early on.”
For Kenseth, who starts the Round of 12 below the cut line, the strong qualifying effort was equally gratifying.
“Track position is obviously important – track position, restarts, pit stops, strategy, all that stuff,” Kenseth said. “Not probably the easiest track we go to typically to pass, now being a day race and maybe (the track will) widen out some and (we’ll) be able to pass a little bit easier than normal, hopefully.
“It’s always important to be up front and try to get a good pit stall for Sunday. It’s how you want to start your weekend.”
Coca-Cola 600 pole winner Kevin Harvick (191.394 mph) dominated the first two rounds of qualifying, posting the fastest lap of the evening at 192.589 mph in the first round, but the 2014 series champion had to settle for third in the money round.
“I didn’t feel like I got to the green quite as good (in the third round), and I felt like I had a little bit to spare in (Turn 1) and I didn’t,” Harvick said. “I got the ground just a little bit and got up a foot (from the bottom of the track) and just had to wait a split-second—but we have a really good car.
“We had three good rounds, a good starting spot and we’ll go from there.”
Series leader Martin Truex Jr. had an uncharacteristically lackluster qualifying effort, earning the 17th starting position, his worst of the season on a non-restrictor-plate track. Truex last missed the final 12 at Michigan in August, starting 13th. Before that, his only qualifying performance outside the top 12 on an open-motor track came at Phoenix in March, when he started 16th.
“I felt pretty good at the end of practice and thought we would be in good shape for qualifying. But the car got way loose for whatever reason. We’ll be fine. We’ll work hard tomorrow in race trim and get this Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota ready to roll on Sunday.”
Dover winner Kyle Busch qualified fourth, followed by non-Playoff driver Clint Bowyer. Brad Keselowski claimed the sixth starting spot, edging Dover runner-up Chase Elliott for the position. After a strong third-place run at the Monster Mile, Jimmie Johnson failed to make the second round and will start 25th.
“Multiple trips through the inspection line doesn’t help by any stretch and we just missed it,” Johnson said. “So another frustrating Friday, unfortunately; and we’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll have to pass a bunch of cars on Sunday.
“It sucks starting the weekend behind like this, but it is what it is, and we’re just going to have to go to work on Sunday.”
Danica Patrick will start 12th after advancing to the final round at a non-restrictor plate track for the second time this season. She qualified sixth at Sonoma in June.
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!