In a race where track position can mean everything, Denny Hamlin took a major step toward securing his second win of 2014 by taking home the pole for the Pocono 400, per NASCAR Stats:
This is the third time that Hamlin has won the pole at Pocono. The first two came back in 2006, and he promptly won each race, so his success on Friday bodes well for his performance on Sunday, per Mike Kuhns of the Pocono Record:
Denny Hamlin a 4-time winner at Pocono has won the pole for Sunday's Pocono 400. #nascar Hamlin swept the races here in 2006— Mike Kuhns (@mike_kuhns) June 6, 2014
His lap speed of 181.415 miles per hour set a track record, per Fox Sports Live:
According to NASCAR.com, Hamlin's record was the ninth of its kind this year alone. The 33-year-old is no stranger to setting a new standard, also putting himself in the Bristol Motor Speedway record books back in March.
"We really just made the car a lot better," Hamlin said after qualifying, per FoxSports.com's Tom Jensen. "Each round we made the car a little better. Hopefully, this lends itself to a great victory on Sunday."
If you're wondering why winning the pole is so important at the Pocono Raceway, look no further than the fact that 20.8 percent of the victors (15 out of 72) at Pocono started from the pole, according to Jayski.com. That's more than any other starting position in the history of the track.
Jimmie Johnson won last year's Pocono 400 after starting out on the pole. He also had set the previous record for fastest lap:
The old track record was set last year by Jimmie Johnson (180.654 mph). This is the ninth track qualifying record of the season. #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) June 6, 2014
Heading into Sunday's race, Hamlin is sitting comfortably in the standings, plenty high enough to qualify for the final Chase for the Sprint Cup. His position isn't totally secured, though.
While one victory is the minimum qualification to finish inside the top 16, Hamlin will still be looking for that critical second checkered flag that will all but guarantee himself a place in the Chase.
Kurt Busch is sitting in a similar position. His 241 points are worst among those drivers to have registered a win. One more win is all that essentially stands between him and the Chase, despite what's been an otherwise poor 2014 season.
He had a strong qualifying session, finishing 0.002 seconds behind Hamlin:
Qualifying from @poconoraceway is over. Busch P2, Harvick P4, Stewart P12, Patrick P16. More info to come...— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) June 6, 2014
Here's a look at the top 12 qualifiers from Friday's festivities. You can view the full race order at NASCAR.com.
|Pos.||Driver||Car No.||Best Speed||Best Time||Behind|
|8||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88||179.565||50.121||-0.511|
Johnson, who sits atop the points standings, struggled right out of the gate. Not only did he fail to finish in the top 12 during the practice rounds, but he slumped to a 20th-place finish.
Rather than point fingers, the six-time points champion acknowledged that he simply didn't have it out on the track, per USA Today's Nate Ryan:
Jimmie Johnson takes blame for 20th: "I feel bad for my guys, but this one's on me." Says too early to tell how his car is for race. #nascar— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) June 6, 2014
Having won the last two races, the No. 48 car has some flexibility this weekend. Even if he doesn't run a single lap for the rest of the season, he's all but locked up a spot in the final Chase. As a result, Johnson can afford to take some more gambles on the track.
"Really it changes your strategy at some racetracks," Johnson said on Friday, per Jeff Owens of SportingNews.com. "This would be one of them. Fuel mileage is a big part of the finish of this race. Tire strategy also comes into play and we can swing for the fences here, which makes that a lot of fun. And hopefully I can save gas, which I really don’t do a good job of."
One driver who is desperate to take home the checkered flag at Pocono is current points leader Matt Kenseth. Compiling 463 points so far this year has done him little good, since he's yet to make the trip to Victory Lane.
Kenseth acknowledged that at some point this season, he'll have to earn himself a victory, per NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola:
We'd rather have the win. Being in the top 30 in points really shouldn't be a problem, so of course you'd rather have a win than being the points leader. So yeah, it's definitely different. We knew (the new Chase system) was a radical change from what we had. You're sitting here (in the media center) because you're the points leader, but you open up the paper and they don't have you in the top 10. So it's a little bit confusing at times. Hopefully, we can get a win.
After a bad start to Friday, Kenseth could only muster a top speed of 177.968 miles per hour and a fastest lap time of 50.571 seconds, which was good enough for 26th. He was one of a few drivers who struggled during the opening session:
Bit of a surprise that Kasey Kahne fails to advance out of the opening session of group qualifying. Matt Kenseth also does not move on.— David Caraviello (@dcaraviello) June 6, 2014
If he's to get his first win of 2014, then it will take a monumental effort.
Even worse, he's winless in 28 attempts at Pocono, and each of his last finishes have been 22nd or worse, according to DriverAverages.com. Next week's Quicken Loans 400 may be a better bet for Kenseth to earn that elusive checkered flag.