From the time he was a rookie in 2006 and swept both races from the pole, Denny Hamlin has always loved Pocono Raceway.
Eight years later, through a change in manufacturers, three different generations of race cars, a repave and a reconfiguration on the curbing in the Tunnel Turn, the Virginia native is still pretty sporty at the 2.5-mile triangle of a track.
Friday afternoon, Hamlin won the pole for Sunday’s Pocono 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, setting a new track record, the ninth of the season, with a lap of 181.415 miles per hour in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
It was a great lap for Hamlin, allowing him to capture his second pole of the season. Other than still being fast here, though, not much is the same from when Hamlin dominated as a rookie in 2006.
"The race track is just so different, you might as well just rename the race track — it’s just not the same as it used to be," Hamlin said. "Really the setups are completely different, the way you drive it, the technique is similar, it’s just you use so much more throttle than you used to. It’s good to get a track record and have that number one pit stall — that will pay dividends on Sunday.
"I have the best pit crew on pit road. Hopefully this lends itself to a great win on Sunday."
Hamlin, who has four race victories at the 2.5-mile triangle, earned his third pole here and 19th of his Sprint Cup career ahead of Kurt Busch, who ran 181.408 — just 0.002 seconds slower — in his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
"We put ourselves in position for the pole and came away just two thousandths shy, which is cool," said Busch, who had his best qualifying effort of the season. "The car didn’t feel that good, but that is the compromise that you have to make in this knock-out qualifying."
Starting on Row 2 will be 2012 series champ Brad Keselowski in a Team Penske Ford and Kurt Busch’s teammate Kevin Harvick, with Jeff Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Kyle Busch in a second JGR Toyota on Row 3.
Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers and Carl Edwards completed the top 10.
There were three rounds of qualifying, a 25-minute first session for the full field, then a 10-minutes session for the fastest 24 drivers from the first round. The fastest 12 from Round 2 advanced to the final five-minute round.
Notable drivers who failed to advance to Round 2 included 2003 Sprint Cup Series Matt Kenseth (26th), two-time Pocono winner Kasey Kahne (27th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (28th) and Marcos Ambrose (29th).
"We just didn’t have the speed," Kahne said. "Actually, we were pretty slow."
Kyle Larson (14th), Danica Patrick (16th) and Jimmie Johnson (20th) made it into the second round, but not the final one. The real surprise in not making the final was Johnson, who won the pole for both races here last year.
"The driver blew Turn 2," Johnson said. "I just got too greedy down in (Turn) 2 and lost the nose in corner exit. I knew it 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 one me."
With only 43 cars entered, there were no DNQs this week.