Photo: Chris Owens/ASP, Inc.

Denny Hamlin Charges to Provisional Pole at Watkins Glen

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Denny Hamlin blitzed the Watkins Glen road course with the fastest lap of the day on Saturday to win the provisional pole for Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), pending post-qualifying inspection on Sunday morning.

Hamlin covered the 2.45-mile distance in 70.260 seconds (125.534 mph), edging Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (125.427 mph) by .060 seconds. First-round leader Chase Elliott was third fastest in the final session at 125.421 mph, just .003 seconds slower than Busch.

“I had a great day today, and hopefully we can cap it off tomorrow,” said Hamlin, who earned his first Busch Pole Award of the season, his first at Watkins Glen and the 26th of his career.

Hamlin found NASCAR’s enhanced schedule helpful—with two practice sessions and qualifying on the same day.

“I typically haven’t qualified well here,” Hamlin said. “A lot of it is because we (traditionally) qualify on a different day than we practice. I think today, being able to use those repetitions and still be hot from practice and have things fresh in your mind—I just got a little faster each round, so that helped.”

Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was the consensus favorite in the garage, and Hamlin was surprised to be able to beat his teammate.

“He’s usually pretty good at this stuff,” Hamlin acknowledged. “But once the 9 (Elliott) and the 18 had gone, and I went behind them, and he (crew chief Mike Wheeler) said we were P1, I felt that we had a good shot at.

“But it’s amazing to me how well Kyle hits his marks and doesn’t make mistakes, especially on a one-lap qualifying get-it-done moment.”

The starting positions won’t be official until NASCAR inspects the cars before Sunday’s race.

Elliott was trending for the pole until the final turn.

“I felt like I had a good lap going, and then I got a little loose out of (Turn) 11 and thought I could stay in it,” Elliott said. “And then I thought I didn’t have any more room—I don’t know how close it was (to the wall), but it must have been pretty close.

“That sucks. I just hate to be that close.”

A number of big names fell by the wayside in the first of the two rounds, notably six-time 2018 winner Kevin Harvick, who posted the 16th fastest speed. Martin Truex Jr., who finished fourth in the first round, bumped out seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the final minute.

Johnson was just .008 second slower than Kasey Kahne, who wound up with the 12th and last transfer position in Round 1.

“You hate to be that close and not advance to the second round,” said Johnson, who expects to race well on Sunday. “But the 9 car (Elliott) has great speed.”

Brad Keselowski, a perennial contender at the WGI road course, qualified 18th, and Clint Bowyer posted the 19th fastest speed.

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