DOVER, Del.: Could it really be true love between Denny Hamlin and Dover?
So far, it’s at least a crush.
His performance today will really determine the fate of this relationship.
Trying his best to adjust his approach toward his least favorite track, Hamlin’s reignited courtship produced fantastic results Saturday when he turned a lap of 159.299 mph to win the pole at Dover International Speedway.
Hamlin has been open in his disdain for the 1-mile concrete oval and knew he’d have to conquer his Dover demons to keep his driven bid for his first career Cup championship rolling along.
Hamlin, third in the points standings, turned to a sports psychologist for advice. The message for Hamlin was this, “Let your challenge for the week be to fall in love with this track.”
Hamlin says the good karma, and a great No. 11 Toyota, all played a part in the turnaround.
“I think that right now we have everything rolling,” Hamlin said. “That part of it is giving me a ton of confidence.”
Hamlin is six points behind Brad Keselowski and seven points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson starts 11th as he chases history at Dover. He raced his way into the track’s history books in June with his seventh win on the concrete, matching the mark held by hall of fame drivers Richard Petty and Bobby Allison.
No active driver owns the track like the five-time Sprint Cup champion. Johnson led 289 of the 400 laps and looked every bit like the driver who swept the two Cup races at Dover in 2002 and 2009. Johnson also won at Dover on Sept. 26, 2010, and he won the September 2005 race.
Dover has traditionally given Hamlin fits. He has an average finish of 20.5 in 13 career starts at Dover. He finished 36th or worse during a four-race stretch from 2007 to 2009. He’s said he just doesn’t like the track known as the Monster Mile.
Here’s a curve. On Saturday, he talked about winning.
“We’ve got a car that’s very capable of staying in the front and hopefully we’ll have a shot to win,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin won his 12th career pole, third this season, and, no surprise here, his first pole at Dover. He had never started better than third.
Hamlin praised crew chief Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to the championship last year, for putting the No. 11 in position to take the pole.
“I think there’s a lot of drivers out there that could be able to do what I do with the cars that Darian has been giving me the last few weeks,” Hamlin said. “I’m going to give him pretty much all the credit and ride his back as long as it will hold me.”
Nine other Chase for the Sprint Cup championship drivers filled the top 13. Clint Bowyer starts second and Martin Truex Jr. is third. Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon start sixth and seventh. Kasey Kahne, Keselowski, Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick are ninth through 13th. Stewart starts 24th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 25th for today’s 400-mile race.
“We didn’t have a good car in practice and we didn’t find any good speed or find any good balance,” Earnhardt said. “It’s going to be a tough day, I think. It’s going to be a tough race for us. We are just going to have to work hard and see what happens.”
Truex had a nice qualifying run on the site of his only career Cup victory. Truex, from nearby Mayetta, N.J., finished ninth and 17th in his first Chase races and is 10th in the standings, 34 points behind Johnson. He posted the fastest time in the first practice Friday and has the speed needed to race into contention for that long-awaited second win.
“We felt good about our car yesterday on long runs,” Truex said. “We had good long run speed. That’s what it takes here. We’ll see if we can get it done tomorrow.”