Denny Hamlin continues comeback with Coke 600 pole

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The previous track record at Charlotte Motor Speedway was shredded by eight drivers during tonight’s qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600, but it was Denny Hamlin who came away with the pole for Sunday night’s event with a speed of 195.624 miles per hour in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Hamlin earned his first pole since March at Auto Club Speedway. That same weekend, he sustained a compression fracture in one of his vertebra in a last-lap crash. The injury knocked him out of action until May 5 at Talladega and kept him from running a full race distance until the next event at Darlington.

To Hamlin, a win in the 600 would be, in his words, “the validation that [he’s] truly back,” and it would also be a major boost in his efforts to climb into this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“For me, it’s going to take some wins and some really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship,” said Hamlin. “That’s what we’re here for. Even these small victories though give me that confidence that I’m still capable, and I’m still able to do the job at 100 percent like I should be. Any kind of confidence booster for me — it’s always a plus on Sunday.”

Kurt Busch was second-quickest in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet at 195.221 miles per hour. The former Cup champion felt that he didn’t quite run the best line through Turns 3 and 4 during his qualifying attempt and was hoping to catch a break. Hamlin, however, didn’t give it to him.

“It was incredible to watch as [Hamlin’s] car hugged the line in [Turns] 3 and 4 exactly liked you would watch cars back in the day, like when Jeff Gordon in the ‘90’s would hunt that white line,” said Busch. “It was awesome. You knew that would be a fast lap. So, I didn’t do my job, but my team is doing an incredible job with fast cars week in and week out.”

Matt Kenseth qualified third and will share an all-Toyota Row 2 with Mark Martin. Clint Bowyer and defending 600 winner Kasey Kahne will go off from Row 3, followed by Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch in Row 4 and Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman in Row 5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and last week’s All-Star Race winner Jimmie Johnson make up Row 6.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Ed Carpenter

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. The 2017 season behind the wheel was better for Ed Carpenter than either of the last two years, but still wasn’t ideal results-wise in his six oval starts.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

  • 2016: 25th Place (5 Starts), Best Finish 18th, Best Start 5th, 0 Top-5, 0 Top-10, 1 Lap Led, 11.2 Avg. Start, 21.8 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 22nd Place (6 Starts), Best Finish 7th, Best Start 2nd, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 5 Laps Led, 11.3 Avg. Start, 12.3 Avg. Finish

Ed Carpenter’s 2017 season was largely one of frustration, both behind the wheel and as a team owner.

While a respectable turnaround in results occurred – Carpenter finished between seventh and 12th in five of his six oval races after a nightmare season of ending 18th or worse in each of his 2016 starts – this is still not what he sets out to strive for in the races he does. Lost opportunities loomed larger than any official result he or the Ed Carpenter Racing team achieved.

Carpenter and new teammate JR Hildebrand, in for the departed Josef Newgarden, dominated preseason testing in Phoenix but Hildebrand could only muster third in the race, Carpenter a season-best seventh. Then at Indianapolis, Carpenter (second) and Hildebrand (sixth) flew the flag for Chevrolet in qualifying and practice pace, but they fell to 11th and 16th on race day owing to a front-wing change and late-race penalty for passing before a restart.

Both drivers got collected in incidents at Texas. Hildebrand qualified and finished a season-best second in Iowa but that result came only after the ECR crew rebuilt his car from a crash in practice. Then Carpenter had a practice crash in Pocono and despite a rapid rebuild, they missed the clock to qualify by mere minutes and were unable to do so. Carpenter’s spin on a slick Gateway track at the start of the race sent him over Will Power’s nose assembly in one of the scarier looking incidents of the year, although fortunately he was OK.

In a similar refrain as we often write, it’s not that Carpenter’s lost his ability to drive and he remains one of the series’ savviest and smartest people in the paddock. There have been a lot of extenuating circumstances of late, and it almost felt as though this team had “empty nest” components. Since September, Carpenter has had to secure his team’s future with a move away from its Speedway, Ind. shop, line up Spencer Pigot for a full-time drive replacing Hildebrand in the No. 21 car, find a new road/street course driver in the No. 20 car, and manage both driving and owning himself.