BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Denny Hamlin ended two weeks of Team Penske dominance by winning the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin set a track record Friday with a lap at 129.991 mph to earn the top starting spot. It broke the mark of 129.535 set by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch a year ago, and ensured that neither Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano won the pole for the first time since NASCAR's new knockout qualifying debuted three weeks ago.
Hamlin ran only one lap in the first segment and it was good enough to lock him into the top 12 to advance into the second segment. He then ran one lap, took the pole for Sunday's race, and got out of his car to see if anyone could beat him.
"As a short track guy, I can feel when, 'OK, this is all I've got.' Or, 'This is a really good lap,'" Hamlin said. He aborted an attempt at a second lap in the first segment because, "If that wasn't a top-12 lap, we were in big trouble. So I knew that was going to be good. Then ultimately strategy comes into play, wanting to conserve your car and keeping everything as cool as you can for the second segment
"I was going to run two laps in the second segment, but I bobbled it pretty bad into Turn 3 and didn't finish the lap. But I knew the first one was good."
So good that he wasn't very worried when Keselowski and Logano both pulled back onto the track as the clock ticked down to attempt to bump Hamlin from the pole. The teammates swept the front row at Phoenix and Las Vegas, where the new format was first used this season, and they made one last run at Hamlin.
Keselowski came up just short, settling for second at 129.965.
Logano was fourth, behind Hamlin's teammate Matt Kenseth.
"I feel like we did what we were supposed to do to be able to go out there and give it a shot for the pole," said Logano, the pole-winner last week at Las Vegas. "Denny's strategy was pretty good. Just not good enough for us."
The Penske drivers were only able to make those final attempts because of a new rule this week by NASCAR that permitted the use of cooling units on pit road for teams to cool their engines following their runs. NASCAR decided Tuesday to allow the devices following a conference call with crew chiefs because of safety concerns raised by drivers.
Because the engines had been getting so hot following the qualifying runs and the cooling units were not allowed, drivers were running laps on the bottom of the track at slow speeds to cool down. It was going on at the same time as other drivers were sailing by at full speed, and many drivers complained they had near collisions.
"I think that rule change has made qualifying even better," Keselowski said. "It's removed danger and replaced with opportunity. I think that was for the betterment of the sport and certainly if for no other reason than safety, it was definitely worth it. But I also feel like being able to go out there and make multiple runs is now a lot more plausible."
The early season struggles continued for Stewart-Haas Racing and even hit Kevin Harvick, who had been the lone bright spot for the organization through the first three races.
Kurt Busch was the highest SHR qualifier at 13th, but Harvick was 27th and Danica Patrick was the last driver to qualify on speed at 36th. Team co-owner Tony Stewart had to use a provisional to make it in the field and will start 37th.