Denny Hamlin captures pole for Sunday’s Dover NASCAR race

It was a friendly golf wager made good on the race track. Denny Hamlin began marking his 500th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race start this weekend with a record pole-winning speed Saturday afternoon at Dover (Del.) International Speedway.

And Hamlin earned his – and Toyota’s – second pole of the season by a mere .003-seconds over the very guy he made that all-in-fun wager with – Kyle Larson.

“I got him, I got him,’’ Hamlin said smiling after qualifying for Sunday’s Drydene 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I’m so happy I beat him. To have that lap there was a really good lap for us. I knew when we ran it, it was really solid.’’

Extremely solid. Hamlin’s lap of 166.984 mph (21.559-seconds) in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was more than a second faster than the previous Dover qualifying record (165.960 mph/21.692-seconds) set by Chase Elliott in May.  Hamlin, Larson and third place qualifier Martin Truex Jr. all broke the track record Saturday afternoon.

It is Hamlin’s fourth pole at the Dover one-miler – the most at any one-mile track for him. The last time Hamlin won a pole position was at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway in August – and he went on to win the race. Hamlin has never won at Dover, but was runner-up to Elliott in this race last year – one of four Top-5 runs at the track.

“This is probably as optimistic as I’ve ever been going into a Dover race simply because we’ve really devoted a lot of time to improving my technique around here,’’ said Hamlin, adding, “It just seems like in practice I’m really comfortable in the car and that’s not my usual MO here.’’

This is the first of three races that make up Round 2 in the Monster Energy Cup Series Playoffs. And all 12 of the drivers still championship-eligible qualified among the Top-18.

Just behind Hamlin, Larson and Truex are fellow Playoff drivers Kevin Harvick, defending race winner Elliott and first-time Playoff competitor William Byron in positions four-five-six on the starting grid.

Ryan Blaney (10th), Alex Bowman (12th), Joey Logano (14th) are the next best Playoff drivers in the starting lineup. Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and points leader Kyle Busch will start 16th-17th and 18th, respectively.

Larson smiled on pit road acknowledging how close he came to swiping the top qualifying position in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. He remained optimistic that the near-miss was still a positive outcome in the big picture. Dover has been one of his best tracks, statistically-speaking. He has eight Top-10 finishes in 11 starts – including a pair of runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2017. He was third at Dover in May.

Coincidentally, the only other time this season Larson started a race on the outside of Row 1 was at Bristol in August – again, right alongside Hamlin.

“I felt like I ran a good lap,’’ Larson said. “Three-hundredths of a second when you’re going that fast isn’t much.’’

His expectations for the race? “A lot of fun,’’ Larson said.