Denny Hamlin hasn’t been overly concerned he’s gone the first 23 races of the 2019 NASCAR season without a pole. But grabbing his first on Friday during Pinty’s Qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway certainly has him thinking big for Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin took the top spot in his No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota after posting a best lap of 129.230 mph, also picking up the first Busch’s pole of the year for Joe Gibbs Racing in the process.
“It really hasn’t weighed on us,” Hamlin said. “We’ve really focused on making our cars race well, and that’s where all the accolades come from. Sure, you want to win a pole. That’s obviously a big deal. But I’ve certainly known we’ve had race-winning speed all year long. We knew short tracks would be an opportunity where we could get that done.”
Hamlin’s best run barely squeezed him past Kyle Larson and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., who ran 129.004 and 128.995, to sit second and third, respectively. Kurt Busch, last year’s night race winner, and Aric Almirola rounded out the top five.
Hamlin watched Larson and Truex qualifying ahead of him, topping both with a strong finish to his Friday that also included a pair of solid practice sessions.
“I knew we had a shot,” Hamlin said. “The second practice, especially, our car was really good and had good speed. I was confident that as long as the crew chief did his job and I did my job we would have a chance.”
Hamlin will take the momentum into raceday as he looks to continue a stretch that has included five straight top-5 finishes.
It featured a win at Pocono and a runner-up last weekend in Michigan, two races where Hamlin and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series had already raced in 2019.
Hamlin made major improvements racing for the second time this year at those tracks, a trend he hopes to continue in Bristol. He finished a solid fifth at the spring race in April, giving Hamlin added confidence he can win for the second time in his standout career at the Last Great Colosseum.
“Every track we go to it’s fast, and I’m driving it to the best of my ability and working to get every ounce of speed I can,” said Hamlin, who won the night race in 2012. “It’s working and everything is just working right now really well.
“I don’t think anything has really happened, but I do know some of these race tracks are some we’ve gone back to for a second time. A lot of people talk about, ‘Hey, when we go back we’ll be better,’ and results have shown every track we’ve gone back to, we’ve finished first or second.”
Chase Elliott, who won the pole at the Bristol spring race, Matt DiBenedetto, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman rounded out the top 10. Spring race winner Kyle Busch, who has eight Bristol Cup Series wins, will start from the 31st position.