MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin figured that to give himself the best chance to succeed at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, he had to start making it happen Friday.
Using practice to work only on his qualifying setup for what he said was the first time in his career, Hamlin accomplished what he called "objective No. 1" by winning the pole position for Sunday's 500-lap NASCAR Sprint Cup race on its shortest, trickiest circuit.
"This is the first time for us doing that and obviously we executed it," he said.
The reason for the attention to qualifying was twofold: the pole-sitter gets the best pit stall on the track's narrow pit road, right at the front with nothing to obstruct his exit, and Hamlin wants to gain ground on points leader Jimmie Johnson this weekend.
Johnson holds a 41-point edge over Hamlin with five races left, and the two have combined to win the last eight races on the 0.526-mile oval. Hamlin has won three, including the series' visit in the spring when he plowed to the front from ninth in the final four laps.
Johnson qualified 19th, and Kevin Harvick, who is third in points, was 36th.
"Odds are the 48's not going to stay where he's at and the 29's not going to stay where he's at," Hamlin said. "As soon as the green flag drops, those guys are going to be coming."
Hamlin's speed of 97.018 mph barely edged Marcos Ambrose, who qualified at 97.003.
Ambrose said he felt lucky after spinning in practice and not damaging his car.
"I'm excited to be in the front row," he said. "I'm going to stay there as long as I can."
Biffle, who is eighth in points, almost lost control of his car on his warmup lap.
"That was pretty good considering I almost wrecked," he said.
Jeff Gordon, who is fourth in points and 156 behind Johnson, will start 11th.