Hamlin Hustles to Bristol Pole

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin became the 21st driver to win multiple Bristol poles. (Photo: Getty Images)

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BRISTOL, Tenn. - Denny Hamlin broke Team Penkse’s stranglehold on qualifying by winning the pole Friday for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each won the pole in the past two weeks with NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format.

Hamlin proved to be better Friday, beating Keselowski for the pole by 3-thousandths of a second. Hamlin’s lap of 129.991 mph topped Kyle Busch’s track record of 129.535 set at this event last year.

“It’s faster than I ever imagined going around this track,’’ Hamlin said after his 18th career Sprint Cup pole. “Every new rule change we have just makes these cars go a little bit faster.’’

Qualifying was a Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske affair. Besides Hamlin, Matt Kenseth qualified third and Kyle Busch seventh for JGR. Logano starts fourth for Team Penske, which has had both its drivers start in the front two rows each of the last three races.

So has JGR figured out what Penske was doing?

“Honestly, I don’t think that Penske really had things figured out as far as the strategy for the sessions - I think their cars were just so fast that they were able to do what we did this weekend,’’ said Hamlin, who ran one fast lap in the first session and one fast lap in the final round. “They went out there and they never had to make a second run in any session as far as to advance to the next session.

“They always had the freshest tires, the coolest car because they would make their run really early in every session. We would too, but we would just be too slow and wouldn’t make the cut so we’d have to make another run, the car gets hotter, the tires get older and if we did make it then we enter the next session with a hotter car, older tires and we don’t stand a chance. 

“They’ve got a lot of speed and when you have a car that has speed then you have the confidence to go out there at any time you want and know that this lap is going to put you in the next session.”

Keselowski said there’s no “black magic” to Team Penske’s success in qualifying.

“If you’re fast, you’re fast and it shows through,’’ Keselowski said. “I’m sure Denny would say the same thing. He has a fast race car and when that’s the case this qualifying format is really easy.’’

Marcos Ambrose qualified fifth and was followed by Jeff Gordon, Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. Jimmie Johnson starts 11th and Carl Edwards 12th, the last driver to make the final round of qualifying.

Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. failed to make the final round and starts 14th.

“Well, the first run is the one you needed to get it done with and we were just too tight,’’ Earnhardt said. “We wanted to get the car comfortable and had all that Nationwide practice in between and kind of overshot the track a little bit.”

Tony Stewart’s struggles continued. He has yet to finish better than 16th this season and will face a challenge Sunday. He’ll start 37th.

This marked the first time the new group qualifying format was held on a short track. It came just days after NASCAR announced it would allow teams to cool their engines on pit road instead of having drivers coast around the track.

“This is way better,’’ Ambrose said. “To even think we did it the other way is crazy.’’

Drivers said the rule change made for safer conditions on the track. It also lessoned traffic but Austin Dillon had some problems.

He said Ryan Truex pulled out in front of him during his qualifying lap and they ran side-by-side in Turn 3 before Dillon got by on his lap, slowing him.

“I don’t know what he was doing,’’ Dillon said. “Had a good huge gap. Just spotters mean so much. I feel like I’ve got one of the best ones. I think he just got pulled up in front of me. I can’t blame him because he can’t do it all in his mirror.’’ 

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