Fresh from last Sunday’s victory at Kansas, Denny Hamlin reasserted his mastery of Martinsville Speedway on Saturday afternoon, edging Chase Elliott for the pole position for Sunday’s First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Covering the .526-mile distance in 19.354 seconds (97.840 mph), Hamlin beat Elliott (97.694 mph) by .029 seconds to secure his third Busch Pole Award of the season, his fourth at Martinsville and the 33rd of his career.
Despite his strong performance, Elliott won’t start on the front row. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet blew an engine early in opening practice on Saturday, and because of the necessary change in power plants, Elliott will drop to the rear for the start of the opening race in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
A five-time winner this season and a five-time winner at Martinsville, Hamlin won his first pole at the paper-clip-shaped track since the fall race of 2013.
“I did an OK job, but this car has been good all weekend so far,” Hamlin said. “It was pretty fast in practice.
“The feel hasn’t always been great, but it’s had pretty decent speed. I’m pretty happy with it and look forward to 500 more laps of this on Sunday.”
Martin Truex Jr. qualified third at 97.694 mph, as Playoff drivers posted the three fastest laps in time trials. Ford drivers Aric Almirola and Michael McDowell were fourth and fifth fastest, respectively. Playoff driver Ryan Blaney, who is eighth in the standings, will start sixth on Sunday.
Other Playoff drivers will start the Round of 8 as follows: Joey Logano 10th, Kyle Busch 13th, Kyle Larson 14th and Kevin Harvick 22nd.
Elliott retained the benefit of a good pit stall pick, and he doesn’t think starting from the rear is a race-killer.
“I think if your car is driving good, and you make good decisions and execute the day like it needs to be done, I don’t think starting last isn’t something that you can’t overcome,” Elliott said. “Certainly, it’s not how you want to start your day, and it puts you in a bit of a hole, but at the same time, if your car is driving good and you do a good job fighting your way up to the front, you still have a shot.
“That’s why a good qualifying effort is still important. If you do get yourself in a position towards the front at the end of this thing tomorrow, a good pit stop could decide it for you. So I think we have to continue to push in all areas and just hope it goes our way.”