BRISTOL, Tenn. - It's been a summer of struggles for Denny Hamlin, but he found some answers at the right time Friday afternoon.
After a wild day full of spins and near crashes, Hamlin claimed the pole for tonight's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, the defending August race winner at BMS, posted a lap of 14.878 seconds at 128.969 mph.
With drivers in a desperate search for grip on the half-mile concrete track, the session developed into a high-speed game of double dare.
"It was kind of a nerve-wracking type of lap where you have to drive it to a certain speed and hope that you've got the cushion to kind of lean on and we obviously hit it just right," Hamlin said.
Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top-five qualifiers.
Kyle Busch, who won Wednesday's NASCAR Camping World Series truck race, brought fans to their feet by spinning on his second qualifying lap. He will be forced to start from the rear of the field tonight.
Five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson also spun while struggling to find a comfort zone.
"You just have to be so committed," said Johnson, who salvaged a 13th-place starting spot.
"Stuff happens. I had an exciting [turn] three and four coming to the green. I had to turn around and take another shot at it."
Hamlin explained why Friday's achievement meant so much.
"It's been far the worst run of nine races in my career," Hamlin said. "A lot of it is our own doing. We got off track for a couple races because we were blowing right-front tires, and then we started changing our setups and didn't find anything that was very good with that.
"But we're heading in the right direction. We've got something we can build on. There's not a whole lot of teams that can say they can win at any moment, but I feel like we can."
It was the seventh front-row qualifying effort of the season for Kurt Busch, who crafted a lap of 14.901 seconds at 128.770 mph.
The hot story Friday morning involved the possibility of Busch joining the Stewart-Haas Racing team next season with Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart.
Busch then attracted more attention by smacking the wall during practice.
"Today was very eventful," Busch said. "We pancaked the whole right side of the car, and then had to thrash to fix it. If you overdrive Bristol, this place will punish you.
"It was one of those moments where everybody just had to roll up their sleeves, and jump in."
According to Edwards, the qualifying session was a radical challenge for all drivers.
"That was the highest sensation of speed I've ever had in a stock car," Edwards said. "It was really, really fast."
Hamlin said he will take a similar make-it-or-break-it approach today.
"I'll be as aggressive as I possibly can to get a win - there's nothing really that I won't do," Hamlin said.
Hamlin executed a classic slide job on Carl Edwards to win last year's August race at Bristol.
"That's an all-out, going for broke type move, and I would do the same thing obviously at this point in my season," Hamlin said.
After surviving Friday's test, Hamlin hopes to use tonight's race as a catapult for the rest of the season. Hamlin, who missed five races this season due to back injury, is currently 25th in Sprint Cup points.
"This is a team that's capable of winning a lot and we know that," Hamlin said. "We can turn it on at any time.
Obviously we're trying some things, trying to get a better feel so we got something to work on for next year.
"Obviously if we hit something like we did today then we can be pretty tough going into the Chase and hopefully be a spoiler."
Dale Earnhardt. Jr. earned the 19th starting spot. That was not exactly a boost for the long-suffering Junior Nation fans who are hungry for a win.
"Yeah it was a little bit slower than we would like to go," Earnhardt said. "It's really tough to get ahold of this place. We haven't qualified good here in a really long time.
"Everybody runs the same speed. It's just going to be whoever can be up front and get track position."
Mark Martin, who qualified 11th, was hoping for a better effort in his replacement role for Tony Stewart.
"It was a challenge today, and I don't feel like I rose to the challenge," Martin said. "If we just had one more day, it would help so much."
Patrick earned the No. 22 starting spot.