BRISTOL, Tenn. — Denny Hamlin, searching for anything to save his season, got a slight boost Friday with a pole-winning run at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin turned a lap 128.969 mph around the 0.533-mile bullring to put his Toyota in the top starting spot for Saturday night's race. Although it's his fourth pole of the season, it's his first career pole at Bristol, where Hamlin is the defending race winner.
But he heads into the race in search of anything positive: He's 25th in points — largely because he missed four races with a fractured vertebra suffered in a crash at California — and entered Bristol stuck in a miserable nine-race slump in which he hasn't logged a finish higher than 18th.
Although he wants to win a race, he'll take any sort of minor victory.
"It's by far the worst run, these nine races, in my career," he said. "A lot of it is our own doing. We got off track for a couple races because we've blown right front tires in consecutive weeks and we started changing our setups and we couldn't find anything that was very good with that. That burnt another three, four weeks. We've had horsepower cut back. But we're headed in the right direction.
"At any moment, we can go from a 25th-place car to winning a pole and winning the race. There's not a whole lot of teams that can say they can win at any moment, but I feel like we can."
Hamlin's lap was good enough to hold off five-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch, who qualified second with a lap of 128.770. It's the seventh front-row starting spot of the season for Busch, who is suddenly a hot commodity on the free-agent market with an offer to join Stewart-Haas Racing next season.
Furniture Row Racing has made its offer to keep Busch, and the driver fired from Penske Racing at the end of 2011 now finds himself not only wading through multiple prospects but vying for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Although he's winless on the year, consistency has him ranked ninth in points with three races remaining to set the Chase field.
"The guys (at Furniture Row) know that this is the time now, and they are all shaking my hand saying 'Thanks' and they are also saying 'Let's do this again next year,'" Busch said. "I'm like, 'Heck, yeah. I'm right there with you.' We have to stay focused on the present as well as balance the future, and it's a tough thing to do. You hope you can do it behind the scenes and it's not out in the public. But today was a great reminder of how hard you have to work in this sport."
Carl Edwards qualified third in a Ford and was followed by Toyota drivers Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth as Toyota took three of the top five spots.
For Vickers it was a big run in his first race as full-time driver of the No. 55 at Michael Waltrip Racing. Hired two weeks ago to take over that car next year, he got a jump on the job early when Stewart-Haas Racing asked to use Mark Martin for the rest of the year as Tony Stewart's injury replacement.
MWR signed off because it gave them the chance to give Vickers a head start on next year with crew chief Rodney Childers — only Childers informed his team Friday morning he's not coming back next year. Although he hasn't finalized a deal, he's apparently also going to SHR to crew chief Kevin Harvick next year.
Vickers handled the news well.
"No good team is built with one person," he said. "The good news is that we've got the opportunity to go find some great people for this team and we're on the hunt now and there's some really good people out there. We're going to hopefully find the right one and still go race for a championship next year."