CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin is back on the pole.
Hamlin topped qualifying Friday night for the NASCAR Cup playoff race Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, marking the 12th time in 13 years he has captured a pole on the top circuit. He did not win a pole in 2011.
Hamlin turned a lap at 191.598 mph in the No. 11 Toyota on the 1 1/2-mile oval for his first pole of the season. He'll share the front row with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
Hamlin has wins at New Hampshire and Darlington this year, but has never won at Charlotte. However, he has always run well here with 15 top 10s and seven top 5s at CMS. He attributes that success to things he's learned from teammates Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
"I love coming to this track because we do run really, really well here, so I'm glad to see it's in the sweet spot of the playoffs where we can really make some hay," Hamlin said.
Kevin Harvick was third, followed by Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is racing for the final time at Charlotte, qualified 23rd in a backup car after he crashed just moments into practice .
Kurt Busch will start eighth.
Busch wore a "VegasStrong" t-shirt under his fire suit to honor the victims of the mass shooting earlier this week in the racing brothers' hometown.
Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR champion with eight victories at Charlotte, did not advance out of the first round and will start 25th. Johnson was considered a strong contender to win this race given his given his history, but the poor qualifying may have dealt him a tough blow.
Johnson said it will be difficult to fight his way up through the field.
"I am disappointed with tonight and I am disappointed with how we are qualifying right now," Johnson said. "We just haven't put our finger on it. But we are working hard at it."
Earnhardt Jr.'s final weekend as a full-time driver at his home track got off to a bad start after crashing on a slick surface in practice.
Track officials added a substance — called PJ11 — to the high line of the track to improve grip. Earnhardt drove his car high early in the afternoon practice session, slipped and hit the wall, prompting his Hendrick Motorsports team to pull out his backup car.
Earnhardt thought the track was too slick.
"I'm avoiding it until somebody can go up there and shows me there is a lap up there," said Earnhardt. "I ain't going near it, on purpose. Might end up it accidentally a few times, but I don't think anybody is willing to go up there without seeing somebody do it first. It's obviously very slick. It's like ice."
None of the drivers crashed during qualifying.
Martin Truex Jr. said he thinks the track surface will get better and better as the weekend progresses.
"I think we just need some cars to run on that stuff and wear it in and get the track kind of prepped," Truex said. "Certainly I don't think anyone expected it to be as challenging as it was. Maybe for the future we definitely need to look at a different way to prep the track so when we go out there guys aren't running into the wall."
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.
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