Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota toured the.533-mile oval in 14.848 seconds seconds at 129.230 mph. It was his fourth pole at BMS, his 31st career pole, but surprisingly the first of the season for him or any Toyota driver.
“I knew we had a shot. The second practice especially, our car had good speed,” Hamlin said. “I was confident as long as the crew chief did his job and I did my job we would have a chance. We’ve had race-winning speed all year long. It’s just qualifying hasn’t been our focus. We knew the short tracks is where we could get that done.”
Kyle Larson, in the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, was second to Hamlin with a lap of 14.874 seconds (129.004 mph). Like Hamlin, he had a late qualifying run as shadows covered the backstretch of the track.
“I was pretty happy with my lap. I knew Denny had the best shot of beating us,” Larson said. “I felt like I got everything I could out of the car, but I was more concerned being on the tight side than the free side at Bristol. Denny was just a hair faster, but we’ll take it.”
Martin Truex Jr., a teammate of Hamlin’s in the No. 19 Toyota, was third at 14.875 (128.995 mph). Defending race champion Kurt Busch took fourth with Aric Almirola in a Ford rounding out the top five.
Chase Elliott, driving the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, briefly led qualifying before winding up sixth. He qualified early before shade covered much of the track.
“Typically when the sun goes down, the grip gets better as the track cools off,” Elliott said. “On the visual side of things, it was fine.”
Matt DiBenedetto, in the No. 95 Toyota, posted the fastest speed in practice, but with an early draw, qualified seventh. Kevin Harvick in a Ford, Erik Jones in a Toyota and Alex Bowman in a Chevrolet filled out the top 10.
A couple of former Bristol winners had slow qualifying efforts. Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, a two-time winner of the Food City 500, qualified 30th, nearly a half-second off the pace of Hamlin.
Kyle Busch, who leads all active drivers with eight Bristol victories, qualified one spot behind Johnson. He was the first driver to make a qualifying attempt — which Larson believed contributed to the slower speed.
“Obviously, Kyle Busch qualifying as bad as he did in 31st, it shows the draw means a lot,” Larson said. “We were lucky that we were able to draw late.”
Still, he didn’t have the speed to hold off the red-hot Hamlin, who comes into the weekend with four straight top-three finishes, ranging on tracks as diverse as the Watkins Glen road course, the flat 2.5-mile Pocono track and Michigan’s banked 2-mile speedway.
Bristol’s high-banked short track is a different animal, but one where he’s off to a great start.
“Every track we go to, it’s the same and I’m driving to the best of my ability and getting every ounce of speed out of the car I can,” Hamlin said. “I don’t know if anything in particular happened, but everything is just working right now.”