Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin earned the pole position for Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) turning in a blazing fast lap of 169.498 mph around the iconic 2.5-mile oval – easily out-qualifying the field by .15-seconds to earn his third pole position of the season.
It will be an all-Joe Gibbs Racing front row with Hamlin starting his No. 11 Toyota alongside teammate Kyle Busch, who was second fastest in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
The last time Hamlin qualified on the pole, at Charlotte in May, he went on to win the race. And he already boasts a stellar resume at Pocono. His six wins at the track are tied with NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon for the NASCAR Cup Series-most at six each.
“As long as it keeps driving like that, it’s all good,” Hamlin said with a smile. “Just made some big strides from practice. The biggest thing is that the team just did a phenomenal job getting this car ready for qualifying. I made some adjustments and it’s good.”
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson were third and fourth fastest in qualifying and will make up the second row on the grid, followed by 2016 Pocono race winner Chris Buescher, who will start the No. 17 RFK Racing Ford fifth.
Ryan Blaney, who earned his first career win at Pocono in 2017 will start his No. 12 Team Penske Ford sixth followed by the Toyotas of Bubba Wallace and Martin Truex Jr. Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez, in the lone Chevrolet, and Kurt Busch rounded out the top-10 starting positions. 23XI Racing’s Kurt Busch, will be starting from the rear of the grid, however, after spinning his No. 45 Toyota into the wall just as he was approaching the green flag for his final qualifying attempt.
Kyle Busch, who won Pocono races in four of the last five years, and Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman split the Pocono Raceway doubleheader race victories last year.
TWO-TIME NASCAR CUP SERIES CHAMPION KYLE BUSCH’S FUTURE
In recent weeks there has been a lot of speculation over where two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch will race after his current contract with Joe Gibbs Racing expires this year.
Conventional thinking expects Busch to continue driving the No. 18 Toyota for the Joe Gibbs Racing organization where he’s raced for the last 16 seasons (dating back to 2008) and earned 56 of his 60 race wins and a pair of series championships in 2015 and 2019.
And while there doesn’t appear to be any immediate news on the situation, the race team has said it wants Busch back and is looking intently for a sponsor. On Saturday at Pocono Raceway, Busch also echoed his desire to remain at JGR next season.
“We’re all working as hard as we can obviously, and the goal hasn’t changed, and that goal is for me to be able to continue at Joe Gibbs Racing with Toyota and have that chance to continue to race for race wins and race for championships,” Busch said.
“That’s what everybody is striving for. That’s the first goal and we’ll continue to try to push for that.”
Busch has already qualified for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with a victory in the Bristol (Tenn.) Dirt Race this Spring. He has six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes (including that win and runner-up showings at Charlotte and Gateway) through the opening 20 races. He’s currently ranked sixth in the series driver standings and will be starting on the front row of Sunday’s Pocono race.
His Kyle Busch Motorsports team won Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Pocono with driver Chandler Smith, and he has two trucks (driven by Smith and John Hunter Nemechek) that have advanced into the 2022 series Playoffs.
“I mean, you’d like to be done obviously,” Busch said of making sure the contract talks don’t distract from his title hopes. “So certainly, that would be key but obviously, you’ve got to kind of weigh out everything that’s in front of you and see what the best thing is not only for myself, in Kyle, for my family and of course, the KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) family.”
PLAYOFF BUBBLE DRAMA
This year’s Daytona 500 winner, Austin Cindric became the first race winner of the 2022 season, but 20 races later, the Team Penske rookie acknowledges even that big victory may not provide a sure-bet Playoff appearance.
With six races left to set the 16-driver field there are already 14 different race winners. Cindric goes into Sunday’s race ranked 10th in the Playoff outlook as it is now. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. are both inside the Top 16 in points but have not won a race yet. Should there be more than 16 winners heading into the Playoffs, the drivers with just one win will revert back to points to decide who makes the 16-driver postseason field.
“There is certainly a domino effect,” Cindric said. “I think you have to be cognizant of it.”
“That points picture is incredibly tight so it certainly could be a talking point,” he added. “From my standpoint, I just do my job and try to stay above that top 16 and the rest will work itself out.”
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES SETS PLAYOFF FIELD
Zane Smith was officially declared the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Regular Season Champion following Stage 1 of Saturday’s regular season finale, the CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono Raceway. Smith will head into the seven-race, 10-driver championship run with a 15-point bonus.
Chandler won the Truck Series race. And the two Smiths – Zane and Chandler will top the 2022 Playoff-eligible field that also includes 2021 series champion Ben Rhodes, John Hunter Nemechek, Stewart Friesen, Christian Eckes, Ty Majeski, Carson Hocevar, Grant Enfinger and three-time series champion Matt Crafton, who held off 19-year-old Derek Kraus to earn the 10th and final Playoff berth.
The 2022 Playoffs begin Friday with the TSport 200 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Two-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Todd Bodine made his 800th and final NASCAR national series start Saturday but was collected in an accident only 12 laps into the race.
He was officially scored 36th in the 36-car field, but Bodine managed a smile and focused on the impressive big picture which now includes 241 NASCAR Cup Series, 333 Xfinity Series and 226 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race starts.
“I’ve been so blessed to do what I love to do for 800 times,” said Bodine, who now works as a race broadcaster for FOX Sports. “Pretty blessed life to have.”
As for the early ending, “That’s racing,” Bodine said managing a smile. “I’ve been here before. I’ve been wrecked before. That’s part of the game.”
“Thank you to all the fans who supported me all these years, it’s truly meant the world to me, and I have appreciated it. I’ll see you on TV.”