Veteran Denny Hamlin earned the first Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway Busch Light Pole Award of his celebrated 18-year career Saturday morning, besting the field by a slight .032-seconds to take the coveted starting position in Sunday‘s GEICO 500 (4 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Hamlin‘s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ran a lap of 180.751 mph (52.979 seconds) around the 2.66-mile speedway to claim the top starting position — his 37th career pole. Aric Almirola will start his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford alongside him — marking the second consecutive week he‘s qualified second fastest and fourth time in 2023 he‘s qualified in the top 10.
“I was well aware I‘d never gotten a speedway pole,” the two-time Talladega and three-time Daytona 500 winner Hamlin said with a smile.
“I don‘t know that there is one [advantage], honestly” Hamlin continued. “If I had qualified 18th I‘d have been just as optimistic. Although, I will say qualifying on the pole means my car is very capable and will be fast leading. I haven‘t been fast in the Next Gen era while leading on superspeedways so certainly that gives me the confidence we should be able to lead the pack quickly, which will make it harder for them to pass us.”
Hamlin‘s JGR teammate, Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Ty Gibbs was third fastest in the No. 54 JGR Toyota — the best NASCAR Cup Series starting position to date for the first-year fulltime driver. He‘ll start alongside Almirola‘s teammate Chase Briscoe in the No. 14 SHR Ford.
Two-time Talladega winner Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell (who started on pole in both of last year‘s Talladega races), Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, last week‘s Martinsville (Va.) winner Kyle Larson and Chris Buescher rounded out the top 10, all advancing to the final round of qualifying. The top group included all four JGR team cars (Hamlin, Gibbs, Bell and Truex).
Defending race winner, Trackhouse Racing‘s Ross Chastain, the only driver to earn top five finishes in both 2022 Talladega races, qualified his No. 1 Chevrolet 22nd for Sunday‘s grid.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, who is making only his second start since returning to competition after a six-week recovery for a broken leg, will roll off 29th in the No. 9 Chevrolet. He is a two-time Talladega winner, hoisting the trophy in last fall‘s Playoff race. He finished 10th in his return to racing last week at Martinsville.
CHASTAIN LOOKING FOR DEGA REPEAT
Ross Chastain‘s victory — he led only the last lap — in last year‘s Talladega spring 500-miler marks his last trip to Victory Lane. The popular driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet is currently second in the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings, only five-points behind leader Christopher Bell. He has three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 2023 — his best showing a third place at both California‘s Auto Club Speedway and the Richmond, Va. short track.
“I feel like I was gifted something from the [Talladega] speedway last Spring and I‘ll probably have to pay it back for a while now,” Chastain allowed with a smile. “I paid it forward for a long time — a decade – and now I‘ll have to pay it back.
“I‘m good with it. I could have been paying it forward for my entire career and never won here so I will take it and come in prepared to win again.”
Chastain said he‘s pleased with the team‘s 2023 performance, calling the Trackhouse Racing‘s preparation this year, “amazing.” He insisted he and teammate Daniel Suarez are prepared and confident to win every race weekend. It‘s just a matter of time.
“I think we‘re as stronger or stronger [than last year],” Chastain said. “I‘ve learned so much so to continue to just evolve and Trackhouse is just evolving, growing quickly, you have to be born, then you crawl your first year and we ran last year and we‘re continuing to run and we‘re in it to sustain this pace. It‘s not easy but I feel I have just as capable cars this year as last.”
Ryan Blaney is experiencing the second longest winless streak of his career — 55 races — but certainly arrives in Talladega with well-founded confidence. He‘s finished top-10 in nine of the last 10 races on the big track including back-to-back wins in 2019-20 — making him the only back-to-back race winner since Jeff Gordon swept both races in 2007.
Although he hasn‘t hoisted a trophy in more than a year, the popular 29-year old driver finished runner-up twice last year — both times in Playoff races. He was second here at Talladega in October and then again in the Phoenix season finale in November.
The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford has four top-10 finishes in the opening nine races of 2023, including a runner-up showing in Phoenix. He comes to Talladega off a seventh place showing at Martinsville last week.
“Honestly the only time I think about it is when ya‘ll ak me about it or when a fan‘s like, ‘when you going to win again? I put money on you,”” said Blaney, who will roll off fifth from Sunday‘s Talladega grid.
“Of course, I‘d like to win. We‘re trying like hell. It‘s not like we‘re sitting here happy with a fifth. I don‘t sit around every night and stew about it, I just try to figure out how to win the next one.”
And, Blaney said, a lot of overcoming a dip in performance is being optimistic each week.
“I wouldn‘t say I get more excited to come here than anywhere else,” Blaney said of Talladega. “[But] I enjoy speedway racing. A lot of people talk that they don‘t really enjoy it and it‘s kind of a burden. I‘ve just never kinda been that way. If you‘re going into a place not liking it, why show up.
LOGANO‘s TALLADEGA STRATEGY
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano has three Talladega wins — second only to Brad Keselowski‘s six victories among active drivers. Even with his impressive win tally, Logano smiled and conceded there are so many variables at play on a superspeedway, strategy changes in an instant.
Logano has led laps in eight of the last 10 Talladega races and earned a win (2018, Spring) . However, the driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford has finished 26th or worse in four of the last five races here, suffering three DNFs in that time.
“A good race on a superspeedway is for me, not wrecking, that‘s important to me because I‘m inside there and I don‘t want to be in one of those wrecks,” Logano said smiling. “A good race for me is interesting strategy right through the stages and that happens if it goes green.
“You see the Fords, Toyotas and Chevys pitting at all different times and how that kind of mixes back up at the end of a stage and I always think that‘s interesting at a speedway and I like to see how that plays out.
“You‘ll see three-wide racing. Talladega always delivers. You‘re not going to know who‘s going to win the race going down the backstretch, you just don‘t know. So, it‘s exciting. That‘s why fans love it.”
— NASCAR Wire Service —