There is no place like home. Just ask Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., on Friday night won the pole for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, the track he grew up 15 miles away from.
Hamlin turned a lap of 122.344 miles per hour in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to claim the top spot ahead of Kyle Larson’s Chip Ganassi Chevrolet and Hamlin’s teammate, Matt Kenseth. Larson’s teammate, Jamie McMurray, was fourth, followed by Kurt Busch’s Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
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The pole was Hamlin’s first of the season and 24th of his career, including three at the 0.75-mile Virginia short track.
“This is a great kick for us,” said Hamlin, “We’ve qualified in the top 10 I think 23 or 24 straight weeks and to be able to finally get a pole is a great feeling.”
Hamlin has a pair of wins here and likes his chances on Saturday night.
“Proud of the balance, the changes in the car that we made throughout each run was a little bit better and obviously running that fast with that many laps tells us we’ve got a good car in the long run,” Hamlin said. “I’m pretty optimistic and we’ll see if we can’t get a win tomorrow.”
Larson was pleased to be on the front row for the second time this season. “I lacked a little bit of forward drive off Turn 4 and gave up a little bit there,” said Larson, who ran122.288 miles per hour, with his lap just 0.010 seconds than Hamlin’s pole run.
Third-qualifier Matt Kenseth was pleasantly surprised to end up in the top five.
“We were a little off, but we still ended up getting a good result out of it when we were all said and done, so probably a little better than I thought it was going to be,” said Kenseth.
Saturday night’s race will be the 26th and final one in the Sprint Cup regular season. After the checkered flag falls, the field will be set for the start of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, which begins next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
In his final race at Richmond, three-time series champion Tony Stewart qualified 14th, five positions ahead of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.
Ryan Newman, the first driver outside the top 16 Chase seeds, qualified 15th. He will need to win at RIR or at least have a top five and hope some of those in front of him in points have big problems.
“We’ve been trying to win for three years,” said Newman, who last won in the 2013 Brickyard 400. “No better time than tomorrow night.”
Failing to advance out of the first round of qualifying were Danica Patrick (29th), Chris Buescher (31st) and Chase Elliott (34th), who like Buescher is trying to make NASCAR’s playoffs as a rookie but will start deep in the field.
“Not where we wanted be,” Buescher said. “ … We’re going to be able to work our way up. In the end, this weekend is about something bigger.”
“Just not going fast enough for sure,” added Elliott. “I don’t know what our problem is.”
The only driver who failed to qualify was Cole Whitt.