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NASCAR Cup Chicago Street Course

Saturday at Chicago Hamlin's "single best day at the track"

It was just one pole of 39 in his NASCAR Cup career, but Denny Hamlin’s performance in practice and qualifying Saturday at the Chicago Street Race meant so much more.

Hamlin’s very productive career, road courses have never been his strong suit. His lone victory – he has 49 in his career – came at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International in the 2016 season.

After out-dueling three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen and Tyler Reddick in the final round of qualifying, Hamlin won the pole for Sunday’s first street course race in the 75-year history of the Cup series.

It was also his second consecutive pole on a road/street course. He started first earlier this month at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, led 33 laps but wrecked out late in the race while trying to run down eventual winner Martin Truex Jr.

Saturday’s performance was even more impressive considering none of Hamlin’s fellow competitors had any previous experience on the 2.2-mile, 12-turn Chicago course, which was only completed on Friday.

Even rain early in the day, which forced Xfinity Series teams to use wet weather tires, didn’t dampen Hamlin’s enthusiasm for his prospects.

“Certainly, we were very optimistic about today. I certainly didn’t like waking up to rain. I thought that could’ve really changed things for me quite a bit, and hopefully it does not rain (Sunday),” Hamlin said.

“It was just a great day. Probably my single best day at the race track in all of my career for sure.”

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota Camry

Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images

That’s a stout statement for a veteran driver like Hamlin.

Asked what would lead him to make such a judgment, Hamlin said, “Just the overall performance of our team today. From lap one of practice to the last lap of qualifying just having been strong on a track – that is really tough.

“Everyone had to learn it at the same rate of speed. No one has got a veteran advantage at this type of race track. So, it’s just a proud moment for our team to be able to come here on equal footing with everyone and be able to perform as good as we did.”

Hamlin also reveled in the positive vibe surrounding Saturday’s activities in the Grant Park area of downtown Chicago.

Admittedly a skeptic about NASCAR’s decision to try a street race, Hamlin said he has quickly warmed to the experience.

“When you see the fans that are walking around here on a Saturday – their excitement of just seeing a NASCAR race car up close and taking pictures. It’s kind of like this is what we’re supposed to do here,” he said.

“I mentioned on (my) podcast last week, the sooner we just kind of understand the gravity of the event and not get caught up too much in the on-track stuff I think the better off we’re going to be.”

Rain could well be back in the picture for Sunday’s race and conditions with an entire field of cars on the track at the same time could well produce unexpected consequences.

However, Hamlin believes his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is capable of even better results on Sunday.

“I’ve never felt like I’ve had more speed in reserve than what I did today. I just knew that I can go get that. Just areas I can go and get that,” he explained. “Now, there’s risks with that.

“I think in the race I’m just going to have to back it down slightly to take away 20 to 30 percent of risk. You’re going to have to be a half-second slower a lap, but you’re going to take away the risk of making a huge mistake.

“And I feel like when you have a car that’s as fast as mine, I’m able to back that up and still run a fast enough pace.”

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