Denny Hamlin, last seen bumping around the outside wall struggling to finish at Bristol and limping to a post-race encounter with Joey Logano, made some positive news Friday.
Hamlin posted the fastest speed in a 43-driver session and won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin ran 187.451 mph to edge Greg Biffle, who was clocked at 187.217.
Following in the top five in time trials for the fifth race of the season were Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. In the second five: Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Kurt Busch.
Although the laps recorded by Biffle and Keselowski were impressive, they won’t mean much Sunday. Both of the Ford teams changed engines during Friday practice, meaning Biffle and Keselowski, the series point leader, will start the race from the rear of the field.
Engines are a point of interest – and endurance – at ACS because the track’s long straightaways mean high RPMs most of the day.
Hamlin had a tense day at Bristol Sunday. He bumped Logano late in the race, sending the former Joe Gibbs Racing driver into a spin and essentially eliminating his shot at a victory. Hamlin ran in the front much of the race but had problems very late in the event and banged against the wall over the closing laps as he struggled to finish the race.
Then Logano approached Hamlin’s car after the race to “discuss” the on-track incident, sparking a brief scuffle between Logano and Hamlin team members, activity that launched an evening Twitter battle between the two drivers.
Previously, Hamlin had been in a tug-or-war with NASCAR officials after he was fined for making what the sanctioning body called “disparaging” remarks about the new Gen-6 car.
“It’s always something,” Hamlin said with a smile after winning the pole. “It’s good it’s positive so far. But the weekend is still young.”
Hamlin said his car was strong enough to win the pole but backed away from that prediction after he drew the third spot on the time-trial grid. Faster laps typically are scored later in the session.
But Hamlin’s lap stood up.
“Our car was really fast,” he said. “I knew talking with a few people in the motor home, telling them I can almost guarantee a pole if we have a late draw. When I found out I was third, I said, ‘Never mind, forget that.’
“But I’ve run good in qualifying here before, and you get an idea what you need to do to hit your points and be fast.”
RESULTS: Auto Club 400 Qualifying
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.