Full qualifying results
Denny Hamlin narrowly managed to stop Team Penske extending their run of pole positions in the new qualifying format introduced at Phoenix, claiming the top spot for this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway by just 0.003s ahead of Brad Keselowski.
"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. "It's been documented and every pole winner says that the number one pit stall and all the good stuff that comes with it.
"Ultimately, our job is to get our car better for race trim tomorrow and I was really pleased with it today in race trim," he said.
Hamlin's time of 14.761s (129.991mph) was a new track record for Bristol, his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch having previously held the record with 14.813s (129.535mph) set one year ago. It's Hamlin's second career pole at Bristol and his 18th in 295 series starts, meaning that he is now tied with Lee Petty, Joe Weatherly and Donnie Allison for 38th on the all-time list of pole positions.
It's the first time that a Penske car hasn't locked out the front row of the grid in the new qualifying format, after Joey Logano was fastest at Phoenix and Keselowski switched positions to go top last weekend at Las Vegas. This week, Logano ended up being pushed down to fourth place by Hamlin's JGR team mate Matt Kenseth who will line up in third place.
"When you set out honestly like what Penske has done early this year ... it makes the competition really, really scratch their heads and start finding where we need to be," Hamlin admitted. "I'm okay with easing into the year and we've done that with our #11 car a lot throughout my career. Kind of figuring out where we need to be and finding that in the summer months not necessarily right now."
This weekend saw the first tweaks to the new qualifying format since it was introduced, with 'cool down' laps banned on safety grounds and teams able to use cooling units on pit road instead. The changes got broadly positive reviews from the drivers.
"Oh, absolutely, I think that rule change has just made qualifying even better," said Keselowski. "It's removed danger and replaced it with opportunity, which I think is a positive-positive. I'm very happy with that rule as it stands right now.
"It doesn't matter what I say because we qualified well and everyone is gonna say, 'Of course you're happy with it,' but I think that was for the betterment of the sport and certainly if for no other reason that safety it's definitely worth it," he elaborated. "But I also feel like being able to go out there and make multiple runs is now a lot more plausible because of that scenario and that's something that rewards the fans and rewards the teams as well."
"I'm sure everyone was for it," agreed Logano. " Everyone was lobbying for this and I feel like NASCAR made the right call in listening to the teams and understanding what our point of view was.
"Everyone was kind of nervous about it here because the closing rate here is quick and you saw what happened at Vegas last week - how fast we were going - so it was definitely the right move for keeping us safe out there," he added. "The competition and the excitement for the fans by being able to make more runs out there and not make cool down laps was also better, so, overall, it's a win-win."
Marcos Ambrose will start from fifth place alongside Jeff Gordon, with Kyle Busch in seventh place alongside Greg Biffle. Biffle and Busch had both forced to take to their backup cars before qualifying after hitting the wall in the earlier 90-minute practice session, as did Justin Allgaier in the #51 HScott Racing Chevrolet. Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing team mate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also brushed the wall but the damage to the #17 proved superficial.
The most serious accident of practice came just three minutes in when the #10 Stewart-Haas Racing car snapped right in turn 2 which saw it collect the #30 Swan Racing Toyota of Cup rookie Parker Kligerman, resulting in both cars sliding down the backstretch.
The good news is that none of the backup cars used on Friday should result in drivers being forced to the back of the grid for the start of Sunday afternoon's race, which is at risk of falling foul to incoming rain systems.
Full qualifying results