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If they gave bonus points for starting first, Denny Hamlin would be that much closer to making the Chase.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway, his second consecutive pole since returning from a four-week hiatus while recovering from a compression fracture in his lower back.
Hamlin won the pole for last week's race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and was second the previous points race at Darlington, his first full event back.
"Obviously, this tells me we've got the speed to run up front and win races," Hamlin said. "In the last couple of weeks, I just haven't had what it took to run with my teammates to win the actual race."
And what Hamlin really needs to make the Chase are wins.
With the way he has run since returning -- second at Darlington and fourth at Charlotte -- he should easily make up the 53 points between him and the top 20 it will take to become eligible for one of two wild-card positions.
But with teammate Kyle Busch 11th in the standings with two wins and potential winners Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart between 13th and 20th, Hamlin expects he'll need at least two victories to make it.
"Our only play is to be aggressive," Hamlin said. "To come here and try to get a good points day is irrelevant because if we don't win then we're really not accomplishing much.
"Obviously, we still have to get inside the top 20, but I think we can do that over the course of the next 13 or 14 weeks. We're going to need to win races, so we're going to do everything we can to try to get that."
Martin Truex Jr. qualified second, followed by JGR's Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to give Toyota the top four positions.
Busch and Kenseth have won twice here in Cup. Truex has won once. Hamlin never has finished better than fourth, so there remains work to be done on a track where his average finish is 19.6.
A win at Dover would be almost like a bonus, with tracks such as Pocono and Michigan -- where he's won multiple times -- coming up.
"We're going to have to capitalize on our money tracks," Hamlin said. "We're going to have to win at those racetracks and sneak a few in here and there when we don't expect it."
Starting on the pole at Dover is a good place to begin.
-- David Newton
Looks like @dennyhamlin has taken his new mantra #MakeTheChase to heart - He wins the pole for Sunday's race at Dover. #MonsterMile— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) May 31, 2013
After looking at replays of Jeff Gordon's Sunday crash going into the dogleg before Turn 1 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, you can understand why he's upset.
No SAFER barrier.
Gordon said it was one of the hardest hits he's ever taken, and after watching the replay and seeing no protection, he understood better why he was in such pain Sunday night.
In a tweet about the incident, he ended it with the hashtag "#Saferbarrierseverywhere!"
It is time for NASCAR to mandate that tracks add barriers to all walls inside the racing surface unless there is scientific evidence the barrier can create more danger. The governing body and tracks can't wait until a driver is severely hurt or even killed.
Denny Hamlin already missed four races this year with a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting an unprotected inside wall at Auto Club Speedway in California.
Gordon was emphatic when asked if he understood why the barriers aren't everywhere.
"No," he said. "Cost. There's only one reason. Cost. That's it."
-- David Newton
You may have to look closely to find @jeffgordonweb at Dover. He'll be in a white car for a rare time. #nascar— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013
Apparently, a relationship between drivers is no different than a marriage.
You know, to have and to hold from this day forward -- for better, for worse.
Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have experienced the worse a couple of times lately. The first came at Talladega when Stenhouse created a four-wide situation that turned into a wreck that collected his GoDaddy.com girlfriend.
The second came on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway when Stenhouse created a three-wide situation that contributed to a wreck involving Patrick and Brad Keselowski.
Patrick admitted she was mad after the Charlotte race and that it created a few awkward silent moments on the ride home. But the two got over it quickly and enjoyed a nice Memorial Day afternoon on the lake.
"These are racing things," said Patrick, who finished 29th at Charlotte to fall to 30 in points. "We find ourselves frustrated with other drivers all the time along the way. It's just one of those things we have to deal with. But we knew that, and we're better for it."
Did she get at least a nice dinner out of the 600 incident?
"No, went home and went straight to bed," Patrick said. "I think I ate something on my bus ... half a banana, a little chocolate protein shake and two beers."
Patrick's car owner, Tony Stewart, also was upset with Stenhouse after the 600 and said on Sirius radio he wanted to "choke" the rookie driver. Much of his frustration was aimed at blocking.
But as Patrick acknowledged, Stenhouse is like a member of Stewart's family.
"Don't you want to choke your kids every now and then?" Patrick said. "I mean, everybody wants to choke their kids, or their dad, or son, or significant other at times. That is a comment out of love, no doubt."
-- David Newton
Ahh!! Monsters have taken over the @lowesracing No. 48!! -JR twitter.com/MissSprintCup/…— Miss Sprint Cup (@MissSprintCup) May 31, 2013
I love when them cars whiz by!! #NASCAR twitter.com/ESPNMcGee/stat…— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) May 31, 2013
Every driver comes to Dover trying to win this trophy. #NASCAR twitter.com/DNewtonespn/st…— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013
Want to see a glimpse of the future of NASCAR? Check out the front row for Friday's Truck race with 19-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. and 17-year-old Chase Elliott.
Wallace is the youngest driver in Truck series history to start from the top spot. He and Elliott are believed to be a part of the youngest front row ever in NASCAR's top three series.
In 2005, 19-year-old Kyle Busch and 21-year-old Brian Vickers took the top two spots for a California Cup race.
Wallace also became the first black driver to win a pole in Trucks since Bill Lester won consecutive weeks at Kansas and Kentucky in 2005.
It was the sixth career pole for a black driver in NASCAR history. Wallace won a Nationwide pole at Dover in 2012, Lester won three in Trucks and Wendell Scott won a pole in the top series at Savannah in 1962.
-- David Newton
Tony Stewart said during a test session at Pocono this week that Stewart-Haas Racing was close to turning things around.
You couldn't tell it by Friday's first practice, where the three-time champion was 36th fastest, Danica Patrick was 32nd and Ryan Newman was ninth.
-- David Newton
Michael Waltrip Racing general manager Ty Norris must know all the hot spots in Dover. He went to college across the street from the track at Delaware State.
"I didn't have a clue that he grew up over here," MWR driver Clint Bowyer said. "Well, no wonder he likes this place so much. I'm glad he's home and hopefully we can win one for him."
If Bowyer wins it would be his first at Dover, where his best finish was fifth in this race a year ago.
-- David Newton
NEWS: @jimmiejohnson "shocked and floored" by #Oklahoma devastation. With video. es.pn/19tnpyG #NASCAR— Joe Breeze (@JoeBreezeESPN) May 31, 2013
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was "shocked and floored" by the devastation he witnessed during a visit to tornado-ravaged Moore, Okla.
Johnson visited the town to distribute supplies to victims of the May 19-20 Oklahoma tornadoes in which two schools were destroyed and 24 lives were lost. He donated his winnings from last week's race in Charlotte, and Lowe's, the primary sponsor on Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, matched it.
Johnson toured the the area Thursday with his wife, Chani, who grew up 160 miles away in Muskogee, Okla.
"I certainly was shocked and floored by what I saw," said Johnson, who made the trip in conjunction with primary sponsor Lowe's and the Feed the Children initiative. "Everyone says that television doesn't do it justice.
"To be able to go in person and see what damage a tornado can do, man, it really got my attention. There was a young boy who was in one of those schools [destroyed]. I can still see on his face and in his eyes the fear that he had."
-- David Newton
NASCAR heads to Dover this weekend. es.pn/1aIuzwA See why that's more good news for Jimmie Johnson.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 31, 2013
#NASCAR @jimmiejohnson said he was "shocked'' and "mortified'' by what he saw from tornado destruction in Oklahoma.— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013
DOVER, Del. -- The return of crew chief Paul Wolfe from a two-race suspension couldn't have come at a better time for Brad Keselowski.
The reigning Sprint Cup champion finished 32nd at Darlington and 36th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Wolfe and car chief Jerry Kelley suspended for violations for an unapproved rear housing discovered before the April 13 race at Texas.
Keselowski dropped from sixth in the point standings to 10th during that span. He was second before Texas, so it's really been a six-race free fall.
Wolfe, who was suspended for six weeks before the penalty was reduced in the appeals process, admitted it wasn't as easy doing his job from afar as he expected.
"It was tougher to deal than what I thought it would be," he said Friday at Dover International Speedway. "I am a hands-on kind of guy, and for me to be able to watch the car in practice and see how it runs around other cars is important for me, visually, to see that and make decisions on what changes to make.
"Everyone that stepped up and helped out did a great job and did all that we could ask, but obviously it is just not the same."
But Wolfe said the drop in points wasn't as much because of his suspension as "We are going through one of those slumps right now."
"We aren't hitting the panic button by any means, and Brad has kept a positive attitude through it all," he said. "Everyone on this team knows what they are doing. We have won a championship. This weekend we are looking forward to buckling down here and getting back on track."
"I know my guys, and we will be out with something to prove over these next few races," he said.
As for the suspension, Wolfe doesn't believe Penske Racing was the only organization pushing the gray area in the rear housing.
"I feel like there were probably cars working in that area," he said. "I don't think they [NASCAR] were necessarily picking on us. They just happened to find where we were working and didn't agree with it."
More good news for Keselowski: He won at Dover during last year's Chase, the first time he has finished in the top 10 at the 1-mile track.
Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano will get his crew chief and car chief back as well. Unlike Keselowski, he had a strong showing last week with a fifth at Charlotte with Todd Gordon serving the same suspension as Wolfe.
"We really made the best of the situation, and I don't think we really missed a beat," said Logano, who finished second in the All-Star Race. "But it will be nice having Todd back at the track, for sure. I'm ready for things to get back to normal and focus on winning some of these races."
-- David Newton
No surprise. Seven-time Dover winner @jimmiejohnson tops the speed charts in the first practice. #nascar— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013
#TonyStewart getting comfortable in the cockpit of his @code3associates @chevrolet twitter.com/StewartHaasRcn…— Stewart-Haas Racing (@StewartHaasRcng) May 31, 2013
#NASCAR @kurtbusch says podium keeps him away from riff raff.#thinkhemeansus twitter.com/DNewtonespn/st…— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013
Already hot and muggy at Dover. Good news is nothing more than a scattered shower in the forecast for the weekend. #nascar— David Newton(@DNewtonespn) May 31, 2013