Hamlin sets new track qualifying record at Charlotte

Denny Hamlin easily broke the track qualifying record at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday night to earn the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 -- the longest race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

Hamlin, who was the 39th driver in the 44-car qualifying order, turned a lap at a blistering 195.624 mph. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver collected his second pole of the season and the 14th of his Sprint Cup career.

"I really just committed to running the best lap that I could, pushing every envelope," said Hamlin, who will start on the pole at Charlotte for the first time in 16 starts here. "Obviously, it paid off with a big reward. It's a good step to the weekend and hopefully a good sign of things to come for the 600 on Sunday."

Hamlin's first pole this season came on the last weekend in March at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. He suffered a compression fracture in his lower back during an accident on the final lap at Fontana and ended up missing the next four races -- Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and Richmond. Hamlin returned to competition on May 5 at Talladega, completing just 25 laps there before Brian Vickers relieved him in the No. 11 JGR Toyota. He then finished second to teammate Matt Kenseth in the Southern 500 at Darlington the following weekend.

With 15 races to go in the regular season, Hamlin is 61 points behind the 20th-place driver (Jeff Burton) and 118 points away from the 10th position (Kevin Harvick). The top 10 in points after the Sept. 7 race at Richmond will make the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The two wild card positions will go to those drivers between 11th-20th in points that have the most wins.

Hamlin has qualified for the Chase each year since his 2006 rookie season.

"Normally, I wouldn't commit myself to running a lap like that," he said. "I feel it's too dangerous, and I would rather just take a fifth or sixth qualifying effort and move on. We have a mission ahead to try to make the Chase. The best way to do that is to win races, and to win races, you need to have every advantage that you can. One of them is having the number-1 pit stall."

Hamlin finished second in both Cup races at Charlotte last year. He has yet to win a race at this 1.5-mile racetrack.

Kurt Busch continued his hot streak in qualifying by claiming the outside pole with a lap at 195.221 mph. Busch won the pole at Darlington and qualified second for last weekend's all-star race at Charlotte.

"It was an extremely fast car," said Busch, who is in his first full season as driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet for Furniture Row Racing. "Those guys (the team) keep delivering pole-winning type cars each and every week when we've been unloading. I just didn't quite hit my mark exactly right in (turns) 3 and 4. And I new that we might get beat by somebody. I was just hoping that I might get a gift. But Denny Hamlin laid it down. It was just incredible to watch. His car hugged the line in 3 and 4."

Kenseth, who leads the series with three wins this season, qualified third. His first career Cup win came in the 2000 Coca-Cola 600.

"I really like the way this car drives," Kenseth said. "I'm really encourage how it responded to all of our changes today (during practice). Last week (in the all-star race), the car we had wasn't really like that. So I feel good about that.

"Obviously, I never really qualified that good. As Kurt (Busch) reminded me before qualifying, if I can ever qualify better than 17th, that's usually a good thing. I'm encouraged about the speed in our car, and the changes (the No. 17 team) made and how it drove. That was a good lap, and I was pretty happy with that."

Mark Martin qualified fourth, followed by Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, who is the defending race winner, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch.

The top-eight finishers in qualifying surpassed the previous track record of 193.708 mph, set by Biffle last October.

With this being the inaugural year of NASCAR's new Sprint Cup race car, the Gen-6, seven of the first 12 tracks on the schedule this season have featured new track qualifying records.

Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman were ninth and 10th, respectively, in qualifying.

Jimmie Johnson, who won the all-star race for a record fourth time, will start 12th in the 600-miler, one spot behind his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Danica Patrick qualified 24th.

Mike Bliss was the only driver who failed to qualify.

There is no track activity at Charlotte on Friday. Teams will practice again on Saturday morning and afternoon. Sunday's 600-mile race is scheduled to start just after 6 p.m. ET.