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Denny Hamlin earned the pole position for Sunday’s 2017 Bank of America 500 by posting the best time in the final round of qualifying Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina.
Matt Kenseth also earned a place on the front row for the first race in the Round of 12 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship Playoffs. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch will start on Row 2 after qualifying third and fourth, respectively.
It’s the first pole of the 2017 season for Hamlin.
Here’s a look at top 10 starters for Sunday (via NASCAR.com):
1. Denny Hamlin (11)
2. Matt Kenseth (20)
3. Kevin Harvick (4)
4. Kyle Busch (18)
5. Clint Bowyer (14)
6. Brad Keselowski (2)
7. Chase Elliott (24)
8. Kurt Busch (41)
9. Kasey Kahne (5)
10. Kyle Larson (42)
Hamlin made national headlines this week when he told reporters NASCAR drivers “should be making NBA, NFL money” based on the schedule and the danger they face each week. Winning the pole is a step toward backing up those comments. Taking the checkered flag would be another.
Although it’s the first time the 36-year-old star will start from the top spot this year, he has plenty of experience with the position with 25 career poles in the Cup Series. He could use a strong finish this week to climb into contention from his current seventh-place standing.
Bob Pockrass of ESPN showed where all the playoff drivers are set to start at Charlotte:
Bob Pockrass @bobpockrass
Playoff dudes 1-Hamlin 2-Kenseth 3-Harvick 4-KyBusch 6-Keselowski 7-Elliott 10-Larson 15-Blaney 17-Truex 18-McMurray 22-Stenhouse 25-Johnson
Busch arrived at Charlotte riding a wave of momentum. He’s coming off back-to-back victories in the ISM Connect 300 and Apache Warrior 400 to make up ground on points leader Martin Truex Jr., who’s also remained in strong form with two top-five finishes.
The 2015 Cup Series champion isn’t prepared to declare himself the new title favorite, however, saying “No” this when asked if he’s now the driver to beat, per Jim Utter of Motorsport.com.
“There’s a lot of racing to go,” Busch said. “You know, I think week to week, you can probably change your favorite. Early on the first third of (Sunday’s) race I probably would have said (Kyle) Larson is your new championship favorite, but you’ve got to let these things play out. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a favorite. Maybe it closes our gap that (Martin Truex Jr.) had on us a little bit.”
Meanwhile, this could be the chance for Jimmie Johnson to start his charge, though he’ll need to work up to the middle of the pack to do it. He’s recorded two top-10 finishes in the first three playoff races, but he’s looking for his first victory since the AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover in early June.
The superstar driver of the No. 48 machine was dominant in this race one year ago. He led 155 of the 334 laps and picked up the win. A repeat performance would seriously boost his chances of chasing down his eighth championship.
All told, starting a new round of playoffs gives teams a little more freedom to take chances since there will be two more chances to race for points before the next elimination. So expect a little more risk-taking Sunday, especially from those in the middle of the remaining 12-driver title chase.
Hamlin should be viewed as the Bank of America 500 favorite based on Friday’s qualifying triumph, but all signs point toward a hotly contested battle in Charlotte.