Denny Hamlin Wins Pole For Cup Series Finale
Denny Hamlin played the role of spoiler in Friday's qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale, beating out his teammate Kyle Busch and the rest of the Championship 4 to take the pole for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The four finalists for the 2018 Cup Series title - Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick - all advanced to the final round but none had the speed to match Hamlin, who took the pole for the final race of the season for the second year in a row and the third time in the last four years.
Three of the Championship 4 – Kyle Busch, Logano and Truex, Jr. – dominated the early rounds of qualifying with the three drivers qualifying 1-2-3 in the opening round and 2-3-4 in the second round behind Erik Jones.
In the final round, Hamlin rose to the top of the leaderboard with a lap of 173.863 mph in the No. 11 Toyota Camry, while Kyle Busch topped out at 173.622 mph to take the second position, followed by Truex in third with a lap of 173.539mph. Brad Keselowski was fourth, followed by Logano. Kevin Harvick – despite making three laps around the 1.5-mile track – qualified dead-last in the final round, taking 12th-place with a lap of 171.942 mph.
"It's big for us to get this race team up front here. We definitely want to end on a high note and try to win," said Hamlin, who previously won the pole for this same race in 2017 and 2015. "2013 we were in the same predicament where we hadn't won a race until the final race and we got it done, so hopefully it's our time to do it."
Sunday's race with also mark Hamlin's last race with crew chief Mike Wheeler, who has been atop the pit box for Hamlin since 2016 and is rumored to be headed to helm the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing and driver Matt DiBenedetto in 2019.
Kyle Busch's second-place qualifying effort represents his career-best start at Homestead-Miami, but was still one position short of being able to claim the coveted number one pit stall – an honor that goes to the pole-sitter.
"Not too bad, wish we had a little bit more there obviously to get the number one pit box," said Busch. "Two years in a row, Denny (Hamlin) has been able to figure that last run out. Just see what happens tomorrow
Busch was asked if he thought his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate might give up the number one pit box.
"That's probably too far, but it would sure be nice," said Busch. "But I think that if you're not in the No. 1 pit box, then 2 through 40 are the same."
Truex, Jr. and Harvick both fought ill-handling cars throughout qualifying – Truex's car running too loose, and Harvick's car pushing too tight.
"We were a little too free on that final run," Truex said. "I tried to gain a little bit more but I just couldn't quite finish getting the throttle down and I think I lost a little bit there. It was a good day. Great effort by the guys. Nice, smooth solid day, which is what we needed. We go win this thing from there and we'll get to work tomorrow."
Harvick's only Homestead victory came in 2014 – the year he won the title – where he started 5th. He finished second the following year, where he qualified 13th, so starting 12th doesn't have him concerned.
"I think it's not that big a deal if we can get our car driving right for Sunday," said Harvick. "We didn't qualify well here last year, either, and hadn't really drove well in qualifying trim all day today. Just got to get it driving right in race trim."
Logano will take the green flag from the fifth starting spot – his best Homestead qualifying effort since 2015.
"Our qualifying was just okay," said Logano. "We need to have short run speed and long run speed (for Sunday). We need to find the balance between all of that. That will be the challenge. Most likely we won't get all four of those things but if we can get three and get close on the fourth, that will be a good spot to be."
Kurt Busch, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola rounded out the final ten qualifiers.
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Qualifying Position: 1st
What is the secret to qualifying at Homestead?
“We made the right adjustments. We kept tuning on it and getting a little better. We got off there in that second round, but just made the right adjustments, I hit my marks and that was it.
How difficult is it to find the right mark out there?
“It’s such a fine line. On a race track that’s got such little grip like this one, you’ve got to hit your marks to the inch and we did that last round.”
You’ve done it before winning here in a year when you haven’t won all year long. Can you do it again?
“It’s big for us to get this race team up front here. We definitely want to end on a high note and try to win. 2013 we were in the same predicament where we hadn’t won a race until the final race and we got it done, so hopefully it’s our time to do it. We’re going to keep digging. Hats off to this team. We were hanging around that seventh to tenth the first couple of rounds and they just – (Mike) “Wheels” (Wheeler, crew chief) made the right adjustments.”
KYLE BUSCH, No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Qualifying Position: 2nd
How was your qualifying lap?
“Not too bad, wish we had a little bit more there obviously to get the number one pit box. Two years in a row, Denny (Hamlin) has been able to figure that last run out. Just see what happens tomorrow.”
How did the car change through the qualifying rounds?
“The first run was really good obviously and then the second run was okay and the third run I thought we made the right adjustments and hit the right line and did a good job with everything. I guess we didn’t have enough speed there. Overall, pleased with the effort today and the guys did a good job. The car felt pretty good.”
Is it better to have a non-championship four contender win the pole so there is no advantage?
“It happened the last two years. It happened to him (Martin Truex Jr.) last year and it happened to me this year with Denny (Hamlin) both times being able to get on the pole. Obviously, just they’ll have that pit selection and we’ll have to pit from where we pit from. Overall, I think that if it was for a championship four contender to win the pole then I think that would give them a slight advantage if it comes down to those late restarts and late pit stops having to come to pit road.”
Would there be a chance that the No. 11 team might pick a different stall and let your team take the number one pit box?
“That’s probably too far, but it would sure be nice. I think that if you’re not in the number one pit box then two through 40 are the same.”
MARTIN TRUEX JR, No. 78 Bass Pro Shops / 5-hour Energy Toyota Camry, Furniture Row Racing
Qualifying Position: 3rd
What did you need there on that final run?
“We were a little too free on that final run. I tried to gain a little bit more but I just couldn’t quite finish getting the throttle down and I think I lost a little bit there. It was a good day. Great effort by the guys. Nice, smooth solid day, which is what we needed. We go win this thing from there and we’ll get to work tomorrow.”
Now that there is a non-champion pole winner, does it level the playing field?
“I would say it does for sure. As long as the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) keeps it. We’ll see how that plays out. It does, though. Last year, he got the pole and took the first spot. We all got what we could. We’ll see how it all plays out. A good first day. Two to go, so we’ll see what we can do.”
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