FONTANA, Calif. -- Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota was running so poorly before qualifying Friday for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway that his Joe Gibbs Racing team took it back to the garage and basically blew it up.
Whatever they did, it worked.
Hamlin grabbed the pole for the 500-mile race Sunday with a lap of 183.870 mph as the Chase for the Championship contender tries to draw closer to leader Mark Martin.
"When you run so horribly in practice, you're at liberty to throw whatever you want at it and we just came up with a great setup," Hamlin said after winning his seventh career pole. "The only other time I can remember this situation happening was our first Pocono race. We were about 20-something in practice and horrible and we threw something at it and picked it up huge in qualifying and in the race as well."
Hamlin is sixth in the standings heading into the fourth race of the 10-race Chase, 99 points behind Martin. Hamlin predicted before the Chase began that he could pick up a victory or two and become a factor.
He's slipped slightly the last two weeks, but has performed well at California. He was sixth during the February race here and finished third in the fall race a year ago.
Still, he knows starting from the pole doesn't mean much except for the opportunity to grab five early bonus points for leading a lap.
Then again, it beats the alternative. He has struggled during qualifying for much of the year and hasn't won a pole since the 2008 spring race at Richmond. He's spent most of the season having to diligently work his way to the front because of lackluster qualifying. He won't have to do that on Sunday.
"We can just get more adjustments in to try and fine-tune the car and I think that's why a lot of times you'll see the guys that qualify up front, they'll finish up front because they get more opportunities to refine their car for the dash at the end," Hamlin said.
Johnson and Martin won't be far behind. Johnson will start third, one spot behind Greg Biffle. Martin will start ninth.
Juan Pablo Montoya, third in the points, will start fourth. Probably. His No. 42 Target Chevrolet scraped the wall on his final lap, and members of his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team were clanging away at the right rear fender as the garages closed trying to bang it back into shape.
They'll likely do everything they can to avoid having to go to a backup car. The car he brought to the race is the same one he used at Indianapolis, where he dominated in July before a late pit road penalty cost him the race.
David Reutimann, a strong eighth last week at Kansas, qualified second but was sent to the back of the field when his No. 00 Toyota failed post-qualifying inspection for exceeding the gas-level limit in the rear shocks.