Denny Hamlin leads Toyota stampede in Coca-Cola 600 qualifying

By the slimmest of margins, Denny Hamlin beat a car he owns for the Busch Light pole position in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In the final round of time trials of Saturday evening, Hamlin ran a lower line through Turns 3 and 4 than did his fellow competitors, and that paid off with a blistering lap of 29.399 seconds (183.680 mph)—just .003 seconds faster than that of Kurt Busch (183.661 mph) who drives the No. 45 23XI Toyota co-owned by Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Christopher Bell, qualified third at 183.655 mph (just .001 seconds slower than Busch), and teammate Kyle Busch followed at 183.505 mph, as Toyota drivers swept the top four grid positions in NASCAR Cup Series qualifying for the first time since the 2017 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I had reps down there, so I kind of knew what I needed for my car,” Hamlin said of the line he ran. “I just thought—forward thinking—that this track was going to get a little better (in terms of grip), and certainly we would want to cut the most distance we could off, if the track continued to grip up.”

Hamlin has never won a Cup race at Charlotte. If he does so on Sunday, he’ll become the second active driver to win all three of NASCAR’s Crown Jewel races—the Daytona 500 (which he has won three times), the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Kevin Harvick is the only active driver to accomplish that feat.

“I’ve had such fast cars here and such crazy luck that I’ve had here over the years,” Hamlin said. “Mistakes that I’ve made that kept us from winning. I just really want to get this one, especially since I’ve been a Coke partner for all 18 years or whatever of my career.”

William Byron qualified fifth in the fastest Chevrolet, with Austin Cindric following in sixth in the quickest Ford. Kurt Busch’s 23XI teammate, Bubba Wallace claimed the seventh spot on the grid, followed by Tyler Reddick, Alex Bowman and Michael McDowell.

Defending race winner Kyle Larson smacked the outside wall in Saturday’s practice and did not make a qualifying run, as his team attempted to repair the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson will start from the rear on Sunday.

Brad Keselowski spun off Turn 4 in the first-round qualifying lap and likewise will take the green flag from the back of the pack.


Chase Elliott thinks Jimmie Johnson has a shot to win Indy 500

Before he turns his attention to a 600-mile marathon at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday evening, Chase Elliott’s focus will be elsewhere.

Elliott’s former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, will take the green flag as a 46-year-old rookie in the Indianapolis 500 at 12:45 p.m. on Sunday.

“I’m super intrigued and I’m excited for him,” Elliott said before NASCAR Cup Series practice at Charlotte. “I think he has a legitimate shot at it, from what I’ve kind of kept up with. His performance at Texas (Motor Speedway, where Johnson finished sixth) I think impressed a lot of people. I wasn’t super surprised by that, just with as good as he is on ovals and how much oval experience that he has. So I think that’s really cool.

“Like I said, I feel like he’s got a shot at the win tomorrow. I’m going to try and keep up the best I can. I feel like our day is always getting kind of busy when that race is going on, or at least when it starts to wind down. It starts to get really good when we’re starting to do sponsor stuff. I’ll try to keep up with it. Hopefully he’s in the running and, if so, I might be late to one or two obligations if Jimmie is leading that thing coming down to the end.”

Not to throw cold water on Elliott’s expectations, but in 105 previous Indy 500s, only two drivers have won from 12th on the grid—Johnson’s starting spot.

And only 10 rookies have won the most prestigious IndyCar race. Alexander Rossi was the last to do so in 2016.


Ty Gibbs charges from the rear to take second on Saturday

Josh Berry may have won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway by a wide margin, but then again, he had a massive head start on second-place finisher Ty Gibbs.

Berry started fourth in the Alsco Uniforms 300 at the 1.5-mile track. Gibbs, on the other hand, started at the rear of the field in a repaired No. 54 Toyota after hitting the wall in Friday’s practice and failing to make a qualifying run.

By the end of Stage 2, Gibbs had worked his way up to seventh, and though he was no match for the race winner, his second-place run was a triumph of sorts, given the adversity he faced.

“We were just a little slower than those guys, and I was too tight (in the) center (of the corners),” Gibbs said. “Our guys worked really hard overnight to get this thing ready, so I’m very thankful to my guys.

“Just need to be able to rotate the center of the corner. That’s where we were lacking the most and that’s where we got beat. But we held onto a second-place finish. We’ll take that – solid day.”

Solid, yes, but not satisfying.

“No, never satisfied unless you win, and you can make mistakes and win, too, but you have to fix those,” Gibbs said. “If not, then you shouldn’t be here.”