Denny Hamlin Grabs First Pole of the Season

Denny Hamlin
Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images

Don't tell Denny Hamlin his first pole of the season isn't significant.

In the money round of Friday's knockout qualifying session, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota toured .75-mile Richmond International Raceway in 22.069 seconds (122.344 mph) to earn the top starting spot for Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), the final race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season.

"I thought for sure we had too many laps on our tires," said Hamlin, who qualified in the top 10 for the 24th consecutive race. "A lot of the guys that we were challenging only had one lap per session, but 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. Just proud of the effort. … And, obviously, running that fast for that many laps tells us we have a really good car for the long runs. So pretty optimistic, and we'll see if we can't get a win."

Though Hamlin edged Kyle Larson by .010 seconds to earn his first Coors Light Pole Award of 2016, his third at Richmond and the 24th of his career, the real drama of Friday afternoon involved drivers who qualified deeper in the field—in some cases, much deeper.

Pocono winner Chris Buescher, who is fighting to stay in the top 30 in the standings and thereby earn a Chase spot, qualified a disappointing 31st. Adding to the stress of the driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was the qualifying performance of David Ragan, who is 31st in points and immediately behind Buescher.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"] Ragan was 19th fastest in the first round of knockout qualifying, 12 positions better than Buescher. The problem? Buescher is just 11 points ahead of Ragan entering Saturday's race, with each position worth one point. Ragan slipped to 21st in the second round and failed to advance, meaning he'll start the No. 23 BK Racing Toyota 10 spots on the grid ahead of Buescher—too far for the rookie driver to enjoy a comfortable night's sleep.

Buescher also can stay in the top 30 if he finishes 10 spots ahead of Landon Cassill, his teammate.

"That's not where we wanted to be in qualifying with our CSX Ford Fusion," Buescher said. "We were a little better than we were last time here, so there is a little bit of positive to it, believe it or not. We'll be able to work our way up.

"At the end of the day, this weekend is about something bigger. We're trying to stay out of trouble and be there at the end. It won't be an easy walk from where we are at right now, but we'll be able to work our way up."

Jamie McMurray (122.189 mph) took control of another important head-to-head matchup, making the final round of qualifying and earning the fourth starting spot. The last driver currently in a Chase-eligible position on points, McMurray enters Saturday's race with a 22-point advantage over Ryan Newman, whose effort stalled in the second round.

Hit with a 15-point penalty on Wednesday after his No. 31 Chevrolet failed the laser inspection station after Sunday's race at Darlington, Newman will start 15th, likely needing a victory to advance to the Chase.

"Well, it's a really big weekend for us, but more than that, I'm just thrilled how both of our cars are running," said McMurray, Larson's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing. "We've just made such big improvements.

"We ran good at a two-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."

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"] Austin Dillon, who starts on Saturday nine points ahead of McMurray, took a significant step toward his first-ever Chase spot with an eighth-place qualifying effort at 121.638 mph. At the other end of the spectrum, another driver likely to experience a sleepless night is Chase Elliott, who qualified 34th in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Elliott starts the night eight points ahead of Dillon and 17 ahead of McMurray. All three drivers share one hope, however—that there's not a new 2016 winner currently outside the Chase grid to reduce the number of Chase spots available on points from three to two (assuming Buescher remains in the top 30).

"We're just not going fast enough, for sure," Elliott said after failing to reach the second round. "I really don't know what our problem is, 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.

"We're giving it our best effort. It just hasn't been where we need to be. The bad news is that it's a terrible starting spot; but the good news is that it's a long race tomorrow night. We have some teammates that are fast, so hopefully we can lean on them and try to get our Chevrolet a little better."

Matt Kenseth, Hamlin's teammate, qualified third. Kurt Busch, who paced the first two rounds, slipped to fifth in the session that decided the starting order of the top 12.

Qualifying Results

Pos. # Driver Make Sponsor Speed Lap Behind
1 11 Denny Hamlin Toyota FedEx Ground 122.344 22.069 Leader
2 42 Kyle Larson Chevy Target 122.288 22.079 –0.010
3 20 Matt Kenseth Toyota Dollar General 122.244 22.087 –0.018
4 1 Jamie McMurray Chevy Sherwin Williams 122.189 22.097 –0.028
5 41 Kurt Busch Chevy Haas 122.144 22.105 –0.036
6 78 Martin Truex Jr Toyota Tanger Outlets 122.045 22.123 –0.054
7 5 Kasey Kahne Chevy Farmers Insurance 122.045 22.123 –0.054
8 3 Austin Dillon Chevy Dow Chevrolet 121.638 22.197 –0.128
9 18 Kyle Busch Toyota M&M's 75th Anniversary 121.457 22.230 –0.161
10 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevy LOWE'S PRO SERVICES 120.951 22.323 –0.254
11 88 Jeff Gordon Chevy Axalta 120.827 22.346 –0.277
12 22 Joey Logano Ford Shell Pennzoil 120.579 22.392 –0.323
13 19 Carl Edwards Toyota ARRIS Surfboard 122.272 22.082 –0.013
14 14 Tony Stewart Chevy Code 3 Associates 122.249 22.086 –0.017
15 31 Ryan Newman Chevy Caterpillar 122.045 22.123 –0.054
16 47 AJ Allmendinger Chevy Kroger/Scott Products 122.017 22.128 –0.059
17 2 Brad Keselowski Ford Miller Lite 121.924 22.145 –0.076
18 6 Trevor Bayne Ford Advocare 121.770 22.173 –0.104
19 4 Kevin Harvick Chevy Jimmy John's 121.556 22.212 –0.143
20 21 Ryan Blaney Ford SKF 121.529 22.217 –0.148
21 23 David Ragan Toyota sweetFrog 121.310 22.257 –0.188
22 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr Ford Zest 120.654 22.378 –0.309
23 43 Aric Almirola Ford Smithfield 120.401 22.425 –0.356
24 7 Regan Smith Chevy APC Chevrolet 120.321 22.440 –0.371
25 93 Matt DiBenedetto Toyota E.J. Wade Construction 122.299 22.077 –0.008
26 13 Casey Mears Chevy GEICO 122.294 22.078 –0.009
27 95 Michael McDowell Chevy Malwarebytes 122.288 22.079 –0.010
28 16 Greg Biffle Ford Ford EcoBoost 122.266 22.083 –0.014
29 10 Danica Patrick Chevy Nature's Bakery 122.161 22.102 –0.033
30 27 Paul Menard Chevy Dutch Boy / Menards 122.078 22.117 –0.048
31 34 Chris Buescher Ford CSX – Play it Safe 121.957 22.139 –0.070
32 38 Landon Cassill Ford MDS Transport 121.935 22.143 –0.074
33 15 Clint Bowyer Chevy 5-Hour Energy 121.781 22.171 –0.102
34 24 Chase Elliott Chevy 3M / American Red Cross 121.775 22.172 –0.103
35 44 Brian Scott Ford Albertsons Co / Shore Lodge 121.540 22.215 –0.146
36 30 Josh Wise Chevy Curtis Key Plumbing 121.250 22.268 –0.199
37 46 Michael Annett Chevy Pilot Flying J 121.245 22.269 –0.200
38 55 Reed Sorenson Chevy TBD 120.924 22.328 –0.259
39 83 Dylan Lupton Toyota E.J. Wade Construction 120.208 22.461 –0.392
40 32 Jeffrey Earnhardt Ford 120.182 22.466 –0.397

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