In Phoenix, Hamlin wins first pole on sixth try
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Denny Hamlin quickly is going from virtual unknown to potential NASCAR Nextel Cup star.
The driver, who turns 25 on Friday, grabbed his first Cup pole Saturday in only his sixth try, topping the field at Phoenix International Raceway with a lap of 134.173 mph and beating out a trio of contenders in the Chase for the championship.
Bunched behind Hamlin's No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet were series runner-up Jimmie Johnson, third-place Carl Edwards and fourth-place Greg Biffle. Series leader Tony Stewart, Hamlin's veteran teammate, who leads Johnson by 38 points, Edwards by 77 and Biffle by 122, qualified ninth for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500.
"It's happened so fast for me, it's definitely tough to have it all sink in," said Hamlin, who has three top-10 finishes in his five Cup starts and will run full time next season for Gibbs in both the Busch and Cup series. "But I'm just getting great cars every week."
Hamlin, currently fifth in his first full season in Busch with 10 top-10 finishes in 33 starts, follows Jason Leffler, who began the season in the No. 11 Chevy, semi-retired two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte and J.J. Yeley into the third car in the Gibbs stable. Yeley will replace former champion Bobby Labonte in the other Gibbs car next season.
"Hopefully, we'll ride this wave right into next year," Hamlin said.
Johnson, who earned the start from the outside of the front row with a lap of 133.506 mph, said there's still a lot of work to do with two races left in the Chase.
"It's go time," the two-time series runner-up repeated several times. "There's no more relaxing. I'm just hoping I'm relaxing after the trophy is raised after the last race."
Johnson made up five points on Stewart last week by passing him late in the race and finishing one spot ahead of the series leader. It's going to take more than that to make up 38 points in two races.
"If we win and Tony's seventh Sunday, I think that will cover it," Johnson said. "That's not unrealistic. It's hard to finish in the top 10 in our sport."
Stewart, the 2002 champion, is riding a streak of 18 top-10 finishes in his last 20 starts, but Johnson is confident he can at least give the leader a battle to the end of next Sunday's race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I really predict a dogfight to the end," Johnson said.
Martin, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne all posted their first pole in their third Cup race, while Johnson and Johnny Benson each took their first pole in their fourth race. Hamlin is next on the list, tied with Loy Allen Jr.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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