March 14, 2014 — report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — NASCAR via Getty Images photo — BRISTOL, TN — So long Team Penske. Hello Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, out of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, won the Coors Light Pole Qualifying Award Friday evening in the first qualifying session since NASCAR adjusted the group format rules earlier this week. The Chesterfield, Virginia native shot to the top of the pylon in the final 10-minute session with a speed of 129.991 mph, a new track record.
The pole is Hamlin’s first pole award of the season and first since he sat on top of the qualifying charts last October at Martinsville. Hamlin also won the pole at Bristol for last year’s fall race.
“Every new rules change we have just makes these cars go a little bit faster,” said Hamlin, who completed a grand total of two laps during the entire qualifying session. “Darian (Grubb, crew chief) just made an excellent call with our adjustments and the team stepped up. We were pretty strategic in how we executed that qualifying session.”
“We thought that it was going to be one and done (one lap) for us. We felt like one good effort in that final round (would be enough). Luckily we didn’t have to go back out there. I don’t know if we would have even made it on time.”
Hamlin beat out Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski for the top spot on the grid. Keselowski recorded a speed of 129.965 mph, placing him on the front row for the third consecutive week. Hamlin’s JGR teammate Matt Kenseth and Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano qualified third and fourth, respectively. Marcos Ambrose completed the top five.
Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne filled out spots six through ten, with Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards rounding out the fastest twelve.
Changes made by NASCAR to the qualifying procedure included drivers being able to hook cars up to cooling units and a ban on cool-down laps on the track apron.
Kyle Busch had held the previous track record at a speed of 129.535 mph set last March before his teammate Hamlin broke that mark on Friday. Busch qualified seventh during the final round.
Before Friday, Team Penske had dominated Sprint Cup knockout qualifying. Keselowski and Logano shared the front row at Phoenix and Las Vegas, each earning a pole to begin the new era of qualifying in NASCAR’s three national divisions.
Logano was fastest in the first 30-minute session during qualifying at Bristol, leading the way with at 129.369 mph. Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were the first two drivers to miss the cut for the second round.
David Reutimann and Dave Blaney did not qualify for the race.
The Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway is scheduled to take place Sunday at 1 p.m. (FOX).