For Denny Hamlin, Thursday night’s qualifying session at Charlotte Motor Speedway felt like a victory--and it came from pushing his car to the absolute limit.
Hamlin, who missed four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races this season because of a compression fraction to his first lumbar vertebra, took advantage of a lightning-fast car and a late draw to win the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 in record time.
One of eight drivers to beat the previous track record, Hamlin covered the 1.5-mile distance in 27.604 seconds (195.624 mph) to knock Kurt Busch (195.221 mph) off the provisional pole. Matt Kenseth (195.094 mph) qualified third, followed by Mark Martin (194.595 mph) and Clint Bowyer (194.503 mph), as Toyota drivers claimed four of the top five spots.
The Coors Light pole award was Hamlin’s first at Charlotte, his second of the season and the 14th of his career. Hamlin converted three of his previous 13 poles into victories, and a win is what Hamlin feels he needs to show he’s back in top form after the injury.
"Getting the big trophy on Sunday is the validation that you’re truly back," Hamlin said. "For me, it’s going to take wins and a lot of really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in a position to have a chance at a championship.
"That’s what we’re here for. Even these small victories, though, give me that confidence that I’m still capable--able to do the job at 100 percent like I should be. Any kind of confidence booster for me, it’s always a plus on Sunday."
Kurt Busch knew he missed his marks slightly in Turns 3 and 4--and ultimately paid the price.
"I just didn’t quite hit my mark exactly right in 3 and 4, and I knew that we might get beat by somebody," he said. "I was just hoping I’d get a gift, but Denny Hamlin laid it down, and it was incredible to watch. His car hugged the line in 3 and 4, exactly like you’d watch cars back in the day, like when Jeff Gordon in the ‘90s would hunt that white line.
"It was awesome. You knew that was going to be a fast lap. I didn’t do my job, but my (Furniture Row) team is doing an incredible job--fast cars week in and week out."
Kyle Busch was first to break the record qualifying run of 193.708 mph that Biffle posted last October. He toured the 1.5-mile track in 27.842 seconds (193.952 mph) to land his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the provisional pole.
But Kyle didn’t have to be a prophet to know that drivers who followed him in cooler conditions would surpass him--and the first to do so was his brother. Biffle supplanted Kyle from the second spot, and Martin followed shortly thereafter, knocking him back to fourth.
That order held until Hamlin, the 40th driver to make a run, became the sixth driver to beat the previous record.
Reminded that his pole earlier this season came at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin quipped, "How’d that turn out?"
Fontana, after all, was the place where Hamlin suffered his compression fracture in a last-lap crash with Joey Logano.