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Despite back problems, Hamlin's a qualifying ace

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — How has Denny Hamlin suddenly become so adept at qualifying?

Even the driver himself was at a loss to explain.

The fact remains, though, that in a year fraught with difficulty for the 32-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver, time trials have been the highlight of an otherwise frustrating season.

Despite missing four races after suffering a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra at Fontana, Calif., in late March, Hamlin has won five Coors Light pole awards in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season, a high-water mark for a single season.

On Friday afternoon at Martinsville Speedway, Hamlin not only grabbed the top qualifying spot for the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 on Sunday, but he also won the pole for Saturday’s Kroger 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the .526-mile short track.

The Truck Series pole was Hamlin’s first in 16 attempts.

So why the sudden prowess on qualifying days?

“I can just hold on for one lap — that’s all I’ve been able to do all year,” Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service after Friday’s Truck Series time trials. “I don’t know why we’ve qualified so well this year, honestly.

“I can understand this weekend in particular, because we really put a big emphasis on this race on the Cup side, but like Charlotte and Bristol and those poles (after returning from his injury), they kind of caught us off guard. Not sure what it is.

“Typically, my style of driving doesn’t lend itself to running one fast lap, but it’s been good enough five times, so I guess I have to go to Vegas.”

WHAT, ME WORRY?

When Jimmie Johnson takes the green flag from his second starting position in today’s Cup race, he’ll have pole winner Hamlin to his inside, his closest pursuer in the championship battle, Matt Kenseth — behind him, and a third Joe Gibbs Racing driver, Kyle Busch on the inside of the second row.

“No doubt, we’re going to be racing in close quarters all day Sunday, and I’ve got the best shot at Jimmie’s left rear getting into (Turn) 1,” Kyle Busch said, needling Johnson in the post-qualifying press conference.

The series leader and five-time champion appeared unfazed by the proximity of the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars.

“No, maybe I should be, but not as of now,” Johnson said when asked if he was nervous. “We will all race hard I’m sure. We have all been… at least so far, (there) have been a lot of situations with each driver, and (we’ve) been able to race hard and take it right to the line, but not cross it.”

LOGANO,

EARNHARDT JR. FASTEST IN

PRACTICES

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams logged many laps in Saturday’s practice sessions, but Penske Racing’s Joey Logano was fastest in the first practice and Hendrick Motorsport’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. topped the speed charts in final practice.

Logano ran a total of 47 laps and in the process posted a best lap of 97.468 mph. Kyle Busch was second quickest in the first session, and he posted the best consecutive 10-lap average speed at 96.590 mph.

Earnhardt Jr. was in control of the leaderboard most of final practice once he posted a speed of 97.533 mph. Earnhardt ran 70 laps in the final practice session.

Chase contender Matt Kenseth finished fourth in today’s first practice just ahead of standings leader Jimmie Johnson in eighth. Kenseth outdid Johnson in final practice as well, finishing fifth and sixth, respectively.