CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin came to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday as one of NASCAR’s hottest drivers and guaranteed the first pit stall for the All-Star race.
Then a blown engine and a band of showers changed the dynamics for the non-points event that pays $1 million to the winner.
A few hours after a cloud of smoke trailed Hamlin’s car early in practice on Friday, the unique three-lap qualifying format with a mandatory four-tire pit stop was rained out, giving Kurt Busch the pole for Saturday’s race simply because he was first in the qualifying draw.
“It feels great. It puts us that much closer to a million dollars,” Busch said. “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and my boat put the best lap down today.”
Joey Logano will start on the outside of the front row for the four-segment, 100-lap race. Brad Keselowski will start third, followed by Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch and David Reutimann.
Hamlin has won three of the last seven Sprint Cup races and his team finished first in Wednesday’s Pit Crew Challenge to earn the choice of pit stalls. He will start 12th but will be required to go to the back of the field when the race starts because he has to change engines.
At least he still gets the coveted first pit box.
“This is probably one of the worst situations you could probably have,” Hamlin said. “We didn’t get to practice anything. We don’t have scuffed tires. A lot of guys will probably race scuffed tires because they’re a little bit faster. And we got to start in the back, so it’s like a double, triple, quadruple whammy of blowing the motor this early.”
The rain hurt other drivers when qualifying was called. Since it features a smaller field, the starting order was based on the qualifying draw and not the points standings.
Instead of starting first, points leader Kevin Harvick will start 13th. He’ll have to make up ground before the final segment, a 10-lap shootout.
“The biggest thing is you want to try and be out front once everybody gets single file as soon as you can to try and take advantage of the aero side of it,” said Harvick, who captured this race in 2007. “The year we won, we won from fourth on the restart and passed everybody going through the middle of one and two on the restart.
“I think with 10 laps with as fast as everybody’s cars are going to be and as much grip as you are going to have, I think you are going to want to be leading.”
Four-time defending points champion Jimmie Johnson will start seventh and Jeff Gordon eighth.
Casey Mears will start ninth in his second straight race in the No. 83 Toyota with Brian Vickers sidelined for the rest of the season with blood clots.
Defending champion Tony Stewart, who won last year after starting 15th, will begin from the 11th spot. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was scheduled to qualify last, will start 18th.
Qualifying was to include the 18 drivers who had already secured spots in the field by winning a race in the past year, or by being a past All-Star race winner (Earnhardt) or Cup champion (Bobby Labonte).
The other 29 drivers, including Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya, will race in Saturday’s preliminary Sprint Showdown. The top two finishers in that 40-lap race get a spot in the All-Star race, and another slot will be determined through a fan vote.
NASCAR officials Friday night were still hoping to complete qualifying for the Sprint Showdown. Montoya (188.055 mph) was the fastest and Burton was second after 25 of 29 drivers had completed their laps before the rain began.
If they couldn’t finish qualifying, the starting order would revert to the qualifying draw, giving David Ragan the pole.
Ten years after Dale Earnhardt’s victory in the All-Star race and a day before he’s inducted in the first NASCAR Hall of Fame class, many of the drivers will mimic his aggressive style.
With no points on the line and a big payday for the winner, drivers are willing to risk a wreck for a victory. There’s an added twist with a mandatory pit stop during the final 10 laps.
“I don’t think it will change it that much,” Hamlin said. “I think you’ll basically see the same crazy race you usually come to see.”