CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin isn't ready to say he's back, even after winning the pole for Coca-Cola 600 with a record-setting qualifying lap Thursday night.
He said it would take a win Sunday night or at another Sprint Cup race later in the season before he's willing to make that declaration.
But Hamlin showed he continues to be on the mend after being sidelined for four races with a compression fracture in his lower spine following a March 24 crash involving former teammate Joey Logano.
Two weeks after finishing second at the Darlington 500, Hamlin broke the track record with a lap of 195.624 mph to capture his first pole at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"Getting the big trophy on Sunday — that is the validation that you are truly back," Hamlin said.
Hamlin has a far bigger goal in mind anyway.
He and Jimmie Johnson are the only two drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year they've been eligible.
He wants to keep it that way — and then some.
"It's going to take wins and consistency throughout the next several months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship," Hamlin said. "That is what we're here for. But these small victories give me confidence I'm still capable and still able to do the job at 100 percent like I should be."
Four Toyotas will start in the top five. Hamlin will start alongside Kurt Busch on the front row, followed by Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer. Kasey Kahne will start sixth, Greg Biffle seventh, Kyle Busch eighth, Jamie McMurray ninth and Ryan Newman rounds out the top 10.
Johnson, who won his record fourth Sprint All-Star race on Saturday, will start 12th, one spot behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Danica Patrick, who has struggled on the 1.5-mile tracks this season, starts 24th.
It looked like Kurt Busch would take the pole.
But when Hamlin heard Busch say in an interview he missed his marks on turns three and four, he decided to step away from his normally conservative qualifying nature and go for the top spot.
"He made a mistake and I capitalized on it," Hamlin said.
Hamlin did everything he could to push the envelope.
"Normally I wouldn't commit myself to running a lap like that — it's too dangerous," Hamlin said. "But we have a mission ahead."
Hamlin, who has never won a Sprint Cup race at CMS, was one of eight drivers to top the previous track record of 193.708 mph set last October by Biffle.
Hamlin said he was sore for about two days after Darlington, but said he's feeling much better now.
"Everything is good," Hamlin said.
It is Hamlin's 14th career pole, including his second this year. The other came at the Auto Club in Fontana.
"How did that turn out? Great race," Hamlin quipped, referring to the crash with Logano that knocked him out for more than a month.
Despite qualifying second, Kurt Busch believes he still has the car to beat on Sunday after winning two segments at the All-Star race here Saturday night.
"The All-Star race is great, but we can do better," Busch said. "Our car is so good right now."
This is the seventh time in 12 races this season that Sprint Cup drivers have posted a new qualifying record.