HAMPTON, Ga. -- Denny Hamlin started chasing the championship during qualifying Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Mired in a bit of a midseason slump, Hamlin showed signs of turning things around by claiming the pole for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race with a speed of 187.380 mph. He edged traditionally strong qualifier Ryan Newman, who'll start from the outside of the front row after a lap of 187.070.
"I'm a very bad qualifier," Hamlin said, "so I'll take it."
He claimed the eighth pole of his career and the 50th for Joe Gibbs Racing, which won its first pole with Bobby Labonte at Martinsville in 1995.
Hamlin has five wins this season, but it's been nearly three months since his last victory. He's coming off a 34th-place finish at Bristol and is fifth in the point standings.
While that's still safely within the 12-driver Chase for the Championship, which will be set at Richmond next week, Hamlin wants to recapture the dominance he showed over a 10-race stretch that included five wins and two other top-five finishes.
"I feel like the last 10 races have definitely been up and down for our team," he said. "We were on such a hot streak there. We kind of got spoiled. The regular season was kind of irrelevant at that point because we knew we were going to get in the Chase."
Hamlin said the team started racing for victories instead of points.
"We're going to treat these next two weeks as if we're Chase racing," he said. "We found ourselves going for wins so much, going all-out for wins, that it probably hurt us in the long run. These next two weeks, we're going back to points racing."
Hamlin wanted to get that new attitude started with a strong qualifying run, and that's just what he got from his No. 11 Toyota Camry.
"We brought our best stuff," he said. "I'm trying to get cautiously optimistic, but that's the fastest car I've ever had on the race track. It was very, very, very good."
If all goes according to plan, Hamlin will have a couple of high finishes -- maybe even another win or two -- heading into the 10-race Chase.
"I'm trying to do the best I can to pretend the Chase starts here," he said. "Hopefully, we can start some momentum now, so we're really hitting our stride when the Chase starts."