Hamlin Hot In Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Az. - It's fitting the rise of Denny Hamlin's career reached its peak in Phoenix.

Hamlin captured his first career Bud Pole on Saturday in qualifying for the Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix Int'l Raceway.

The pole winning lap of 134.173 mph in his Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx Chevrolet was good enough for Hamlin's second top-five start in only his sixth NEXTEL Cup Series start and capped one of the most impressive late season stretches in some time.

"It's definitely something that a lot of young drivers all over the country look forward to," Hamlin said of his first Cup pole. "I feel like any driver can do what I'm doing right now with the equipment I've been given."

Hamlin was named the full-time driver of JGR's No. 11 entry last week in Texas and says it still hasn't sunk in.

"The opportunity that Joe Gibbs and everyone at JGR has given me is a once in a lifetime thing," Hamlin said. "I'm so fortunate and to have someone like (crew chief) Mike Ford to help me, with the great crew we have is awesome."

Hamlin's Cup pole followed his Busch Series qualifying effort that will see him start second in Saturday afternoon's Arizona 200.

The pole was the first for a car carrying number 11 since Bill Eliott turned the trick in 1994.

"And Bill Elliott is my idol," Hamlin said when informed of the fact. "My first racecar had the number eleven because of Bill Elliott."

Hamlin will have to overcome history to score his first career NEXTEL Cup win on Sunday. No pole winner has ever won a Phoenix Cup race and only six of the 17 events held at PIR have been won from a Top 10 starting spot.

Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Bobby Labonte rounded out the Top 5.

Johnson will start outside the front row in his quest to catch Tony Stewart, who leads the championship standings by 38 points coming into Sunday's race.

"That was a really good lap," Johnson said. "We didn't make any qualifying runs yesterday. We just worked strictly on the race set-up. We're doing everything we can to be the champion and hopefully this is a good start to that."

Brian Vickers, Bobby Hamilton, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Stewart and Jeff Gordon completed the first ten qualifiers.

Seven drivers failed to qualify for Sunday's race: Brandon Ash, Bryan Reffner, Mike Wallace, Kevin Lepage, Derrike Cope, P.J. Jones and Morgan Shepherd.

Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 will take the green flag at 3:40 p.m. (ET).

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