Denny Hamlin finally did something he has failed to do all season Friday night. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver scored his first pole of the season at the venue the Virginia native considers his home track, Richmond International Raceway. Hamlin was out first in the final of three rounds of knockout qualifying and put down an unbeatable lap of 22.069, 122.344 miles per hour for the 24th pole of his career and his third at Richmond.
“It was a good run obviously,” Hamlin said. “But I thought that for sure we had too many laps on our tires. A lot of guys that we were challenging only had one lap per session. My car didn’t really come in that quick, so I had to run multiple laps and on a short track that wears out tires I thought we were at a huge disadvantage. I’m just proud of the effort. Proud of the balance, the changes in the car that we made throughout each run was a little bit better and obviously running that fast with that many laps tells us we’ve got a good car in the long run. I’m pretty optimistic and we’ll see if we can’t get a win tomorrow.”
Kyle Larson was one of the last out in the final five minutes and nearly spoiled the party for Hamlin but came up just short and will start second in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400.
“I’ll take a second here,” Larson said. “I’ve always qualified somewhat decent here. I would have liked to get the pole, but we’ll take a front row start. Short tracks are where I struggle the most, so it’s nice to qualify good. We’ve just got to race well. “
The drama was behind the front row as several drivers needing a win or good finish to vie for a final spot in the Chase looked for good starting spots. Chris Buescher currently 30th in points with one win, needs to remain there if he hopes to make the Chase. His troubles started early however as he failed to advance from the first round. Buescher will start 30th Saturday night. His nearest rival for the 30th spot, David Ragan had a much better qualifying session advancing to the second round, and securing a 24th starting spot.
Ryan Newman, whose Chase hopes took a big hit this past week with a 15-point penalty, also failed to advance out of the second and will roll off 15th. His nearest competitor, Jamie McMurray enjoyed a stellar qualifying session advancing to the final round and grabbing fourth.
“It’s a really big weekend for us,” McMurray said. “But more than that I’m just thrilled how both of our cars are running. We have just made such big improvements. We ran good at a 2-mile track at Michigan. We ran good at Darlington with a different rules package and we’ve run good at a short track. As an organization, it’s been really good and the next 10 races, if we can get in, it’s going to be pretty awesome because our cars have peaked at the right time.”
Rookie Chase Elliott struggled failing to advance out of the first round; he will start 34th. Elliott’s protégée Jeff Gordon substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr., fared a bit better and will start 12th.
“I really don’t know what our problem is,” Elliott said. “But we struggled in our mock runs earlier today, too. So, we just need to think about it, I guess, and try to go to work tonight.”
Matt Kenseth will start just in front of McMurray in third, Kurt Busch just behind McMurray in fifth.
Last week’s winner at Darlington, Martin Truex Jr. will start sixth; Kasey Kahne, needing a win to make the Chase, made a strong statement with a seventh qualifying spot. Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson round out the top 10. Gordon and Joey Logano was the last drivers to advance to the final round. Cole Whitt was the only driver who did not qualify. The full qualifying results cane be found here. The full lineup here.
With his position secure in the Chase, Hamlin said he will be paying attention to the Chase storylines as the weekend plays out.
“I mean, I’m a race fan first, so it definitely interests me for sure,” Hamlin said. “I’ve watched a many elimination races coming into Richmond and it’s always very, very exciting because those guys that have to get in or have to win always manage to find a little bit of something and next you know they’re in the mix to try to win the race.”
“Notable,” he added. “Ryan Newman just a few years ago – I believe it was the ‘arm scratch-gate’ year – but he was leading the race and would have – I forget how it all played out – but he was going to, it looked like he was going to win the race and that happened. It’s very interesting and to me I definitely will be looking at things, how they’re going throughout the day, but it’s spread out enough I feel like that essentially the 1’s (Jamie McMurray) probably going to have to have something bad happen or a bad night for him to not make it.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway will be run on Saturday September 10. Live coverage will be on the NBC Sports Network starting at 7:00 p.m. ET with the green flag coming just after 7:30 p.m. ET.