BRISTOL, Tenn. – The hot streak continues for Denny Hamlin.
Entering this weekend, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had posted five straight top-five finishes including a runner-up last weekend at Michigan.
Friday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin earned his first pole of the season with a lap of 14.848 seconds at 129.230 mph.
“These guys are on it right now, it’s unbelievable,” Hamlin said. “I’m just trying to learn every week and do everything I can to get better. The results are showing.”
The learning curve for tonight’s race will involve the track’s upper groove, where several drivers appeared to find a comfort zone in Friday’s practice sessions.
Kyle Larson, the master of high-groove racing, delivered a message Friday by qualifying second with a lap of 129.004.
“Everybody just thinks I’m so committed to the top, but I’m not, actually,” Larson said. “I run around the bottom here more often than I do the top throughout the race. I feel like what’s made us good here is that I can get to the top and maintain speed.”
Another key for Larson at Bristol is comfort.
“I love this place,” Larson said. “I wish we could race here all the time. It’s definitely the best track we go to.”
Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola rounded out the top five qualifiers.
Busch has won six Cup races at BMS, including last August. Kurt’s younger brother, Kyle, has conquered Bristol eight times and the Busch brothers have combined to win the last four BMS Cup races
So what’s the secret, Kurt?
“With me and Kyle [Busch] and the wins that we have here, a lot of it is protecting the race car and putting yourself in position to win. You’ve got to get up on the wheel here,” Kurt said.
Kyle Busch was among the drivers who were unaware that the top groove of the track had been ground down before Thursday night’s doubleheader involving the NASCAR K&N and Truck Series.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” Kyle Busch said. “Typically, here in the fall race, the top has come in by now, but there was nobody that was doing any of that in the truck race.”
According to Kyle, drivers were basically in the dark this week regarding track adjustments.
“We talk about it a little bit over the group text. Like ‘hey, did anybody know about this?’ ‘No, nobody knew about it,’ ” Kyle Busch said. “So then we start digging around trying to ask questions and nobody really wants to give you a straight answer.
“SMI [Speedway Motorsport, Inc.] tends to do whatever they want to do, however they want to do it and however they see fit.”
Hamlin said he had no problems with the track prep at BMS.
“I think the communication has been good,” Hamlin said. “We didn’t talk about the high line, but we did talk about the PJ1 [traction compound] application.”
That communication between drivers and BMS track officials included a photo of the top groove a few days ago, according to Hamlin.
“It’s more smooth,” Hamlin said. “I think it just caught some teams off guard and drivers off guard. I think the top lane is going to be dominant.
“… Each track president or owner can do whatever they want. They could I guess put truck ramps out there if they want. We’re going to race no matter what race track we’ve got.”
For Hamlin, the key tonight will be to tap into the same magic that he’s had over the past five races.
“It’s just every track we go to,” Hamlin said. “I’m driving it to the best of my ability and working hard at trying to get every ounce of speed out of it that I can. It’s just working.
“I don’t think anything really happened, but I know certainly that some of these race tracks are the ones that we’ve gone back to for a second time. That means the crew chief is doing a really good job of listening to my comments after the races and making the car better.”