The Minute: Bristol preview
Hamlin rolls to pole in shootout
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Denny Hamlin said during SpeedWeeks, as he was winning the Sprint Unlimited and a 150-mile qualifying race, that this was all leading up to something. His win in the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway the previous season had sent him into the offseason with a burst of momentum after an accident at Auto Club Speedway cost him four races and a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Hamlin's offseason testing program with Joe Gibbs Racing had left him encouraged. His team, he asserted, would be heard from in the first weeks of the season.
A week before returning to the track where his 2013 unraveled, Hamlin took another step toward making good on his prediction on Friday. Like Brad Keselowski last week, he can complete his redemption campaign before it barely gets started.
Using just one qualifying run in both the 30-minute first session and 10-minute knockout round, Hamlin set a new track record in winning the pole for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Hamlin traversed the .533-mile concrete track at 129.991 mph, smashing teammate Kyle Busch's year-old record of 129.535.
"Obviously this is a great start to the weekend at a track where we believe it's a great opportunity for us to get a win and put ourselves in a Chase spot," said Hamlin, who won the Bristol summer race in 2012.
Keselowski, the 2012 champion who missed the Chase last year but won last week at Las Vegas, made a late run to jump from seventh to second at 129.965, followed by Matt Kenseth (129.073), Joey Logano (128.830), and Marcos Ambrose (128.727).
Friday marked the implementation of a tweak to NASCAR's new qualifying format, allowing teams to cool their engines on pit road with mobile units rather than on the race track with low-speed laps. Several drivers had warned of the peril in the old practice, and the sanctioning body relented this week heading to the confines of Bristol.
Drivers unilaterally approved of the change. Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., who starts 14th, called it "much better."
"That rule change has made qualifying even better," Keselowski said. "It has removed danger and replaced it with opportunity."
The modification rid the track of traffic-clogging cars but had the ancillary effect of allowing teams qualifying runs with cooling times drastically reduced. Although Hamlin made just one run in each of the two group sessions, most of the rest of the field, including Keselowski made multiple attempts to abscond with the pole.
Hamlin's blistering lap and concise approach held, though. He made just one run in each of the two sessions after undertaking one mock run in practice held. Keselowski, fastest in the first session, was impressed.
"I feel like we did what we were supposed to do to be able to go out there and give it a shot for the pole," Keselowski said. "Really and honestly Denny's car has been a little faster than ours today. I felt like when we won the first session I'm like, 'OK, we found something between practice and qualifying,' so I felt pretty good about it.
"Denny's strategy was pretty good. I think watching what they did in between two runs was pretty impressive to me. It was a huge pickup for them."
A win on Sunday for Hamlin would mark a bigger pick-up, a nearly certain bid in the 16-driver Chase field.
Bristol already taking a bite
The first practice of the weekend was a costly one in terms of sheet metal and anxiety at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday.
Five Sprint Cup drivers were involved in accidents in the first third of the 90-minute session, with four of them requiring backup cars. Among them was Kyle Busch, whose five wins is tied for the all-time track lead among actives.
Danica Patrick was the first to experience trouble, as she wobbled on her fourth lap, clobbering rookie Parker Kligerman and sending her to a backup No. 10 Chevrolet. With temperatures in the mid-40s, and the concrete surface lacking grip early in the session, Patrick seemed to lose control by herself, dipping down into the No. 30 Toyota.
Busch was orbiting just above the typical groove in the same area of the track as Patrick's miscue, spun out, and mashed the front and back of his No. 18 Toyota on his 11th lap. Busch also went to a backup car, as did rookie Justin Allgaier, who was involved in an incident in the first session.
Greg Biffle sideswiped the wall in Turn 4 with his No. 16 Ford on his 18th lap. His Roush Fenway team was soon rolling out a backup, also. Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, winner at Bristol last summer, barely kept the rear of his car off the wall with just more than 30 minutes left in the session, but brushed the concrete in the final five minutes, apparently with minimal damage.
Denny Hamlin, who won the 2012 Bristol night race, said that the accidents are a product of new chassis aerodynamics package being utilized for the first time at Bristol, including changes to ride height and spoiler configuration. NASCAR is also utilizing a new tire compound, developed during a test last September, and designed to enhance grip. The .533 oval hosts the first short track race of the Sprint Cup season.
"I really don't think it's that treacherous," Hamlin said of the track. "Just the speeds are so much higher than what we've seen. Obviously with the new rules package, the ride height change and now a tire change, it takes a little bit of getting used to.
"So, we are all out there fighting for a tenth of a second, a hundredth of a second here at Bristol. I think it comes more from us pushing the edge more than it is treacherous."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. impacted the wall with 11 minutes left in practice but appeared to sustain much less damage with a flush strike along the length of the No. 17 Ford.
Kurt Busch led the first session with a best lap of 129.789 mph. Jeff Gordon (129.421) was second with Hamlin third (129.351). Kyle Busch won the pole for the Bristol spring race last year with a lap of 129.535.
'NASCAR Now' Minute
Smoke and horrors
Tony Stewart's horrific start to the 2014 season continued on Friday, as the three-time series champion qualified a woeful 37th, forcing him to use an owner's points provisional to be included in the field for the Food City 500.
Stewart, who finished 35th in the Daytona 500 and 33rd last week at Las Vegas, entered the weekend 27th in driver points and bristling with each additional inquiry about the broken right leg that that cost him the final 15 races of the 2013 Sprint Cup season.
His troubles have been shared by Stewart-Haas Racing, with at least one of his teammates suffering similar problems each week. On Friday, Danica Patrick crashed early in practice and qualified 36th in a backup car with little preparation time and Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick qualified 27th.
Stewart did not speak with the media.
Finding the groove ... or not
Ryan Newman, who posted the seventh-best practice time on Friday, said race cars are "really, really sensitive" to certain adjustments because of the new rigidity of setups.
"Once you lose it, you really lose it," he said.
Tire wear has been significant, Newman added, creating rubber debris, or marbles in the high line. Whether this will compress the racing lanes and re-create more of the physical, vintage Bristol racing sensibility lost with a repave in 2007 remains to be seen. Speedway Motorsports Inc. ground down the top lane in 2012 to make the high line smoother and less tenable.
"Marbling-up is not a good thing as far as the race track and giving us the ability to use all of the race track," Newman said. "When it marbles up and you get up into the marbles, it takes two or three laps sometimes to get back going again. And that's sometimes 20 or 30 positions.
"You want to have the confidence in the race track and your race car to be able to put it anywhere so that you can pass at any time. And obviously the track is pretty narrow."
Kyle Busch nearing benchmark
One more typical Kyle Busch race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday and the 11-year Sprint Cup veteran could become just the 15th driver to lead at least 10,000 laps in NASCAR's top series. Busch, 28, is just 140 laps from reaching the plateau, a feat he has accomplished -- rather, obliterated -- four times at Bristol.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 415 laps in finishing second in the fall of 2008, and won with totals of 378 (spring, 2009), 283 (fall, 2010) and 153 (spring, 2011).
"It just means you're accomplishing things in the sport, various things in the sport," Busch said of the imminent milestone. "There's a lot of things that I want to accomplish still that I haven't. Whatever things come along that way that we're able to accomplish is awesome.
"It means you are a name in the sport and that hopefully things continue to go down that path, whether it stops at 10,000 or not -- I doubt it will -- so hopefully we just keep going."
Jeff Gordon (23,585), Jimmie Johnson (15,890) and Tony Stewart (12,634) are the only active drivers ahead of Busch. Junior Johnson (12,635) -- who never contested a full Cup schedule -- and Mark Martin (12,879) are the only drivers with more laps led than Busch who did not win a title.
Kenseth reveals baby plan
Jeff Burton will be on call for Matt Kenseth in the Sprint Cup series and Sam Hornish Jr. in Nationwide next week at Auto Club Speedway in case the 2004 champion's wife, Katie, goes into labor with their third daughter.
The same drivers were prepared to replace Kenseth in the No. 20 Toyota this weekend at Bristol, but the birth is not imminent, he said. Hornish, who finished second in the Nationwide Series standings last year, is driving a seven-race schedule in the events Kyle Busch does not contest in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 Toyota. Burton is racing an as-yet-unannounced micro race schedule and testing for Michael Waltrip Racing while transitioning into a full-time role as a television analyst.
Burton, Kenseth quipped, is "not crazy about going to the West Coast." Kenseth was unsure why Hornish -- who has contested 130 Cup races over seven seasons, mostly for Team Penske -- did not serve in both roles, as he "did not coordinate" the plan.
Kenseth joked on Friday that he had originally implored his wife to wait until Monday to give birth but had to adjust for the high probability of rain at the track on Sunday and snow on Monday.
"Oh, it's supposed to snow Monday?" he said. "So I guess if we can't race then we can still have her on Monday."