LONG POND — There was a time that Denny Hamlin used to pummel the field at Pocono Raceway. Perhaps that time has returned as Hamlin delivered a knockout Friday in qualifying for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Pocono 400.
Hamlin set a track record in NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format, posting a speed of 181.415 mph.
“We were really good throughout each session,” said Hamlin, a four-time winner at Pocono. “We weren’t definitely a pole-winning car after practice or even throughout the first round. I think we were 12th.”
Under the new qualifying format, all 43 cars ran during the first 25-minute segment. The top 24 then advanced to the 10-minute second round. That group was cut in half for a final five-minute segment to determine the pole.
Hamlin was just sixth after the second round and well behind top runner Kurt Busch. Hamlin, though, edged Busch (181.408) in the final segment to win his third pole in 17 races and first since 2006 at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
“We just kept getting our car three- to fourth-tenths better every time we ran it,” Hamlin said. “A little bit of that is repetition, me getting all I can out of the race car. (Crew chief) Darian (Grubb) made the right adjustments throughout each session. Really, it all worked out for us for a pole run.”
The same couldn’t be said for Jimmie Johnson, who won the race last year by leading 128 of 160 laps. Johnson was fourth after the 25-minute session, but fell to 20th in the second segment.
“The driver blew turn two,” Johnson said. “I just got too greedy down in two and lost the nose in corner exit. I knew I killed the lap. Sure enough when I came back around it was only good enough for 20th. I feel bad for my guys, but this one is on me.”
Johnson shouldn’t be dismissed come Sunday. He had a worse starting position three times at Pocono and finished sixth or better in those races. Hamlin certainly isn’t counting out Johnson.
“Maybe not the beginning, not the first half,” Hamlin said. “Pit strategy really gets jumbled around here a lot to where it allows people to play different strategies. It allows you to pass cars on pit road and not necessarily on the race track.
“You can’t count out anybody as long as they get it right on Saturday (during the final practice).”
Hamlin’s speed topped the record set by Johnson (180.654) set in August 2013. Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick were also faster than the former record time.
“I was just thanking all the crew guys for putting us in position to go for the pole,” Busch said. “To advance through knockout qualifying, we have gotten to the second round a lot this year. We haven’t gotten into the final round much and this was a final round type car.”
Hamlin will be looking to make amends for last year’s August race at Pocono. He started ninth and was 12th when he crashed on lap 14 and finished 43rd. His dominance at the track came with a sweep of the 2006 races and wins in August 2009 and June 2010.
Still, two of his three worst Pocono finishes have come since the track was repaved for the 2012 season.
“We haven’t been that strong here since the repave, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Handling hasn’t been as big of an issue at this track since the repave for obvious reasons. There’s a lot of grip. We set a track record and go faster and faster which makes passing harder and harder. And we haven’t qualified that well.”
LARSON ON ARCA POLE
Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson won the pole for today’s Pocono ARCA 200 with a speed of 169.472 mph. Brennan Poole was second at 169.100.
Steve Fox, of Hazleton, will start 26th. He was the final driver to make the 30-car field via speed.