Denny Hamlin figures this weekend is when NASCAR's real championship contenders begin to separate themselves from the pack. He thinks he's part of that group — and he's off to a pretty good start.
Hamlin won pole position for the Brickyard 400 on Saturday, turning a lap of 182.763 mph in qualifying. And with a good run in the race Sunday, Hamlin figures he can rev up his push for a title.
"This is the turning point of the season," Hamlin said. "We feel like from Indy to Richmond is when you're going to start to see who's going to fight for a championship. Everyone has got their Chase cars prepared, bringing them to the racetrack, starting to tune on them, and that's when you want to start running good."
It's the 11th pole of Hamlin's career and his second this season. Hamlin also won the pole at California.
Hamlin's best finish in six career Brickyard starts is third in 2008. Coming into this weekend, he had never started higher than 10th at the historic 2.5-mile oval.
"I feel like when we come here, we can win every single time," Hamlin said. "You ask me that about a couple other tracks, I would say no."
Carl Edwards qualified second in his first race weekend with new crew chief Chad Norris, followed by Joey Logano, Aric Almirola and Greg Biffle.
Jimmie Johnson qualified sixth, holding on to a wildly loose car.
Jeff Gordon was ninth, Juan Pablo Montoya was 12th and Tony Stewart was 28th.
NASCAR officials disallowed the qualifying time of Michael McDowell after a post-qualifying inspection found that the nitrogen gas in a rear shock absorber on the No. 98 car exceeded the allowable pressure. The No. 19 car driven by Mike Bliss made the race instead.
It was something of a fresh start for Edwards, who lost the championship to Stewart on a tiebreaker last season but is a disappointing 11th in the Sprint Cup Series standings going into Sunday's race. Roush Fenway Racing replaced Bob Osborne as the crew chief for Edwards' car last week, citing an undisclosed health issue that Osborne is dealing with.
Edwards praised his crew for staying focused during the change.
"All the guys got together and worked toward this common cause," Edwards said. "Monday at noon we knew what our plan was this weekend as far as who was going to be working where. Everyone has worked really hard for the last 12 days or however long that is to make this happen. It is just one lap. Anything can happen. But this is the first step toward our comeback to make the Chase and I think everyone did a good job. It is about people. Jack Roush is not afraid to work and make change and I am really happy that this is going well so far."
Logano said his crew made significant adjustments during practice, turning a fairly slow car into a fast one.
"We unloaded today not very good," Logano said. "I think we were about 30th on the (speed) chart or worse, and we were really struggling. They made some good changes in between practices."
Sam Hornish Jr., who is filling in for suspended driver A.J. Allmendinger for at least the next two races, qualified 24th. Allmendinger is suspended indefinitely after violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy.
"I feel with this car I haven't been comfortable yet," said Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner. "When I go into the corner, the back end will slide out and as soon as I give it a little direction it just keeps moving around and it never really gets to the point where (the car) feels like it's underneath me. Maybe I'm asking too much of it? We're just not quite there yet."