CONCORD — Denny Hamlin is on a mission.
He doesn’t know whether he can complete it, but if he still can qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, that means throwing caution to the wind.
Thursday night, Hamlin used a jaw-dropping, track-record lap at 195.624mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, who missed four races with a broken vertebra in his back, is tied for 26th in points and needs to be among the top 20 by the end of season’s 26th race to even be eligible for one of two wild-card spots.
“I wouldn’t normally commit myself to running a lap like that and probably would have settled for starting sixth or something, but we have a mission ahead and that’s to try to win races,” Hamlin said.
“To do that you have to have every advantage you can. Starting up front and having the best pit stall are some of those.”
Hamlin said he was willing to gamble with his good draw late in Thursday night’s session.
“If you have a shot at a pole, this is a chance you have to take,” he said. “As a driver, I’m typically the guy who backs off a tenth (of a second) so not to lose more time.
“I’d rather qualify sixth to eighth to 10th vs. a pole, than 30th, fifth, then 30th. If you push it all the time, you end up getting in situations that hurt you for the race.”
Hamlin said the road ahead is all upside for his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“If we make the Chase, it’s a great story,” he said. “If we don’t make it, then we have the perfect excuse – we missed some races and most people didn’t give us a chance.”
In all, the eight drivers eclipsed the previous track qualifying record of 193.708 mph set last fall by Greg Biffle.
The pole is Hamlin’s second of the season. His other was at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., the site of his accident.
Kurt Busch ended up qualifying second-fastest Thursday, Hamlin’s JGR teammate Matt Kenseth will line up third, Mark Martin fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth.
Points leader Jimmie Johnson will line up 12th.
It appeared Busch was well on his way to his second consecutive pole – he started up front two weeks ago at Darlington, S.C. – when Hamlin knocked him from the top spot with four cars remaining of the 44 attempting to qualify for the race.
After the run, Busch said Hamlin’s effort remained him of “something Jeff Gordon used to do back in the 90s.”
There almost was surreal talk among drivers after the qualifying session of how many felt they could have even gone faster.
“I left some on the table in (Turns) 3 and 4, but I nailed (Turns) 1and 2,” Busch said. “I felt really good about it going down the back straightaway and I had a conversation with myself ‘How hard do I drive it into (Turn) 3?’
“I still didn’t quite hit my marks in (Turns) 3 and 4. That just shows how good this car is right now.”
While Hamlin was conducting his news conference, he received some encouragement from Kenseth, who yelled into the room, “Yay Denny!”
Kenseth, not known as a strong qualifier, also was pleased with his starting position.
“It’s nice to be up front. Hopefully, you can keep some track position and maybe lead some laps for bonus points and plus the track changes so much,” Kenseth said.
“You like to start out front so if you have your car set up for the night time, then you want to have a little bit of a head start in case you get off a little bit during the day.”
Mike Bliss was the only driver who failed to qualify for the 43-car field.