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Pole Starter Hamlin Looking At Chase

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 4 2010

Denny Hamlin won the pole Saturday for Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (File photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Hampton, Ga. – The chase is on. But does that mean teams are more focused on points racing rather than a victory in Sunday’s race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway?

With the NASCAR post-season about to start in two races, those who are trying to win the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup  – or just get in it – came to the Emory Health Care 500 with game faces on, but momentum and points on their minds.

“Our Chase starts here,” said Denny Hamlin, who won the pole in the FedEx Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing with a lap of 187.380 mph. Ryan Newman (187.070 mph) qualified second in the U.S. Army Reserve Chevy of Stewart-Haas Racing and Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch was third in the Pedigree Toyota.

Already having earned 50 bonus points with five victories, Hamlin said he’s not necessarily looking for the 10 bonus points that come with a victory as much as making sure his Gibbs team is in championship fettle.

The team, he said, fell behind this summer while gambling on victories and being too complacent about having made the Chase. “Most of the teams bring out their new stuff at Indy,” said Hamlin, “and when we went there this year we were behind.” At one point, said Hamlin, his team thought it could maybe win ten races before the Chase. Instead, after winning at Michigan in June, the No. 11 Gibbs team has gone winless and scored just two top five finishes, including a second at Michigan.

In Atlanta the goal, said Hamlin, is to run like it was the first round of the Chase, which begins on Sept. 19 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Hamlin said a team that was inclined to gamble under Crew Chief Mike Ford during recent races or take reliability for granted has come to Atlanta after an off weekend rewound and re-focused. “This week everybody has stepped up,” he said. “Everybody is taking a whole new approach. I felt like I was driving for a whole new team.”

Newman is among those who are trying to get into the Chase – against some long odds. He’s 118 points behind the 12th and final position held by Clint Bowyer. “We can’t expect as a team to make up all the points in one race that we didn’t get in the 24 races prior to this one,” said Newman when the question of win or bust came up. He said the team would have to be satisfied with its best run, whether it’s a victory, a Top Five or worse.

Known for his sideways driving style on Atlanta’s high banks, Busch says he’s looking at ol’ momentum rather than a victory on a track where he scored a dominant win in 2008. A bad finish would be far worse than not winning, said Busch, who has three victories and is third in the points.

“We’re just trying to build on our momentum,” said Busch, who missed the Chase last year. “Yes, we’d like to go out and win or nothing else matters. But we really can’t have a 20th place finish.”

The man on the bubble, Bowyer, presents himself as one of the most relaxed drivers at the Atlanta track. “You can’t put too much pressure on yourself,” said Bowyer. “You go out and do the best you can and that’s all you can do.”

But Bowyer, who qualified 14th, admitted the focus on the Chase has been so consuming for him and his RCR Chevy team that he forgot he was scheduled to drive the Zaxby’s-sponsored Chevy in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday night. “Somebody called me last week and asked if I wanted to come over and get in the seat,” he said, referring to the Nationwide car. “I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be driving in this race. That’s how focused we are on the Chase.”

In addition to Newman, Jamie McMurray, who qualified 12th in the McDonald’s Chevy of Chip Ganassi Racing, and Mark Martin, who qualified 17th in the Carquest Chevy of Hendrick Motorsports, can improve their chances of making the Chase with a strong showing in Atlanta. McMurray is 100 points behind Bowyer and Martin is 101 points in arrears.

McMurray was not pleased with his lap, taken in the afternoon versus the previous format of an evening session. “This is just a really hard track to get a hold of,” he said. Martin, whose Hendrick team announced a four-race primary sponsorship for 2011 with Quaker State earlier in the day, quickly departed after his lap without any comment.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 4 2010
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