HAMPTON -- Denny Hamlin seemed as surprised as anyone when he knocked perennial front-spot sitter Ryan Newman off the pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday.
"We never qualify on the pole," Hamlin said. "We never qualify in the top 10, so this is a great step and a good sign for our team."
"Never" may be a strong word. It was actually Hamlin's eighth career pole in 176 tries, and the 50th for Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin put the No. 11 Sport Clips Camry in the lead spot with a qualifying lap speed of 187.380 mph.
The good fortune couldn't come at a better time, with Hamlin sitting fifth in the points standings and a chance to clinch a spot in the Sprint Cup Chase with a finish of 20th or better today. Coming off a series of problems in previous weeks, Hamlin is hoping to keep the good luck going.
"I feel like the last 10 races have definitely been up and down for our team," Hamlin said. "These next two weeks we're bringing everything we've got to the race track, the best stuff that we have to see how we're going to stack up against the competition."
That competition is stiff, with only two drivers having clinched spots in the Chase with two races to go. With so many on the bubble, Hamlin needs a new direction, and he said he's getting it.
"Whenever we have those mechanical failures it is so frustrating. ... The 11 team's been kind of characterized as the team that has all this potential but we can't ever finish, 10 weeks in a row. We always have something that goes wrong with our cars and things like that. It's challenging everyone in the shop to step up."
Hamlin thinks they have.
"I almost feel like I'm driving for a different race team ... this is the best, fastest car I've had at the race track."
As for Newman, who has won numerous poles at Atlanta, he sits 15th in points and needs a stellar finish to go with his front-row start.
"We'll start up front and hopefully finish up there," he said.