Hamlin sets new track record and wins pole at Pocono

A four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winner at Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin, continued to excel on the 2.5-mile triangular layout on Friday, setting a track record in qualifying for Sunday’s Pocono 400.

But Hamlin says Pocono is a different animal than the track at which he won his first two Cup races for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2006.

“It’s so different that you could almost rename the race track,” said Hamlin, whose lap at 181.415 mph edged Kurt Busch by .007 mph. “The old stats don’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have a great weekend, but this is a great sign.”

Driving on a track that was repaved for the 2012 season and retooled in Turn 2 with the addition of an apron for this year’s events, Hamlin was only 24th-fastest during Friday’s mid-day practice session. That’s when Hamlin said his team went to work on his FedEx Toyota Camry.

“This was very similar to what we did our rookie season,” said Hamlin, who last went to victory lane at Pocono in June 2010. “We just kept making it two- to three-tenths faster ever session. We were definitely not a pole-winning car in practice or even in the first round of qualifying. A little bit (of the improvement) was repetition – me getting all I can out of the race car – and a lot was Darian Grubb (crew chief) making the right adjustments.

“Typically, when you have a car that can get the pole, that tells me you have all the parts and pieces and should be capable of winning. As tough as passing is (at Pocono), it’s better to be up front than having to battle your way through traffic.”

Pocono has always been one of Hamlin’s favorite layouts. In addition to posting his first two Sprint Cup victories from the pole, he has posted 13 top-10 finishes in 16 career starts. But success has been more fleeting in recent years. Last August he crashed in Turn 3 on the 16th lap of the race and finished 43rd.

“We haven’t been that strong here since the repave,” Hamlin said. “Handling is not as big an issue at this race track since the repave. Now, it has a lot of grip. And we haven’t qualified that well. Back when I was winning in 2006, ’07, 2010, on the old track, you could make up tons of positions. That would never happen today because the cars are running so fast and they’re so equal.”

Busch, who’ll start alongside Hamlin, had previously shattered Jimmie Johnson’s track record in the second round of Friday’s knockout qualifying at 181.087 in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.

“When you don’t get the pole, it’s bittersweet,” Busch said. “The sweet side is that you know the car has speed in it. After my (final) lap, I felt I’d left a little change – a little pock change – on the lap in Turn 1. But I was really surprised we had the speed to contend for the pole today.”

Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick qualified on the second row, while Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch also broke the 180-mph mark.

Keselowski will start in the top 10 for the 11th time in 14 races and knew he was close to securing his third pole this season.

“Two-hundreths (of a second) on a 2.5-mile track – that’s pretty dang close,” Keselowski said.

Toyota driver Brian Vickers had the fastest car in Friday’s practice and was fastest – ahead of Kurt Busch and Gordon – in the first round of qualifying.

“We’ve been really strong in the first round but just can’t figure out how to keep that (speed) in the next two qualifying rounds,” Vickers said.

Not everyone was so fortunate or so fast on Friday. Jimmie Johnson, fresh off consecutive Sprint Cup victories, was 20th in qualifying. Series points leader Matt Kenseth failed to advance through the first round of knockout qualifying and will start 26th.

“The driver blew Turn 2,” Johnson said. “I just got too greedy and lost the nose in corner exit. I knew it killed the lap. Sure enough, when I came back around, it was only good enough for 20th. I feel bad for my guys, but this one is on me.”