BRISTOL, Tenn.—Welcome back, Denny Hamlin.
After nine miserable weeks where mediocrity was the high point and race-ending wrecks were all too commonplace, Denny Hamlin reemerged from the doldrums to win the Coors Light Pole for Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
With a lap at 128.969 mph (14.878 seconds), Hamlin edged Kurt Busch (128.770 mph) for the top starting spot in Friday’s time trials for the 24th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season.
The pole was Hamlin’s first at the .533-mile short track, his fourth of the season and the 16th of his Cup career.
Carl Edwards qualified third at 128.692 mph, followed by Brian Vickers (just .001 seconds behind Edwards at 128.684 mph). Matt Kenseth (128.580 mph) and last Sunday’s Michigan winner, Joey Logano (128.520), earned the third-row starting spots.
Three of Hamlin’s poles have come after a four-race absence because of a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra, sustained at Fontana, Calif., in March. Friday’s efforts comes on the heels of a nine-race stretch in which Hamlin has finished no better than 18th.
“It’s our worst run of nine races in my career,” Hamlin said. “A lot of it is our own doing. We got off track for a couple of races because we were blowing right front tires in consecutive weeks. We started chasing our setups and didn’t find anything that was very good with that.
“That burned another three or four weeks. … But we’re headed in the right direction. We’ve got something we can build on. It’s a pole at a short track, which is no big deal for a lot of teams, but like I said, at any moment we can go from that 25th-place car on a weekly basis to winning the pole and winning the race.”
Driving conservatively on his first lap, Busch nailed down his seventh front-row starting position of the season (one pole and six second-place starts) in a car that had been hastily repaired after the No. 78 Chevrolet brushed the wall during the second practice session.
“I said I’ve got to go 95 percent—I can’t go 100 percent on that first lap, just to feel the car and trust the car,” Busch said. “On the second lap, once I made it through the first lap, I said, ‘All right, let’s go 100 percent,’ and then I’m back all over the place again.”
The qualifying session was an unwelcome adventure for Kurt’s brother Kyle Busch, who paced final practice earlier in the afternoon. Busch’s Toyota got into the marbles at the top of the track on his first lap, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver stopped short of the finish line and reversed direction.
Busch drove back to Turn 1 and resumed his first lap, completing it in 93 seconds, to gain momentum for a second attempt. But after he crossed the start/finish line to start the second circuit, Busch spun in Turn 2 and tagged the outside wall with the right rear of the No. 18 Camry.
As time trials progressed, Busch’s crew was busy repairing sheet metal damage to the right rear quarter and rear panel. Jimmy Makar, JGR’s vice president of racing operations, said the plan was to repair the primary car, but Busch will have to start at the rear of the field with the slowest time on the board after the mishap.
Series leader Jimmie Johnson got loose in Turn 3 coming to the green, reversed his field and then completed two laps, but his effort was good enough only for 13th on the grid. Aside from Kasey Kahne, who will start seventh, the news was even worse for Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh in the Cup standings, qualified 19th. Jeff Gordon, 14th in points and scrambling for a spot in the Chase, lost momentum on his first lap and posted the 32nd fastest time, forcing the four-time champion to come from deep in the field if he hopes to gain ground on the drivers ahead of him in the standings.