WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 19: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Mavis Tires & Brakes Toyota, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 19, 2023 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 19: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Mavis Tires & Brakes Toyota, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 19, 2023 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Watkins Glen International Saturday Notebook

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin won the pole position for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET, USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – taking to the track twice in Saturday’s final qualifying session alone and bettering his already field-best speed in his second outing.

This is the fourth pole position of the season and third road course pole – also at Sonoma, Calif. and Chicago Street Race – for Hamlin, whose No. 11 JGR Toyota turned a lap of 125.298 mph around the 3.45-mile, 11-turn course in picturesque upstate New York.

“I feel confident in the speed of my car,’’ said Hamlin, whose only NASCAR Cup Series road course win came at Watkins Glen in 2016 “I still think in the top-10 there’s maybe seven better road course drivers overall putting all the laps together and speed. But I think track position is the biggest factor over all that so it’s up to me to make sure I execute at the beginning of the race and then set the tone from there, have good pit stops, have good strategy and let’s see where we’re at.’’

Hamlin will start alongside Hendrick Motorsports’ driver William Byron on the front row – besting Byron’s mark in the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet by a slight .19-second. Last week’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course winner Michael McDowell will start third, followed by Hamlin’s JGR rookie teammate Ty Gibbs and two-time defending race winner, Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson.

Road course ace A.J. Allmendinger, of Kaulig Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick, Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch and Spire Motorsports’ Corey LaJoie rounded out the top-10. It’s the career best qualifying effort for LaJoie, who will roll off 10th in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott was among those that did not advance past first round qualifying. He was sixth fastest in Group A with only the top five moving to the final round session and his speed will place him 15th on Sunday’s grid.

Elliott was understandably frustrated Saturday about his qualifying showing considering he’s ranked 19th in the standings with the top 16 advancing to the Playoffs. With two regular-season races remaining the former series champion will need to win a race to advance to his ninth-consecutive Playoffs. And Watkins Glen has been a productive venue for the 2021 champion. He won back-to-back races here in 2018-19; the 2018 victory his first ever at the NASCAR Cup Series level.

“Unfortunate,’’ Elliott said of his qualifying run Saturday, noting he was very disappointed after having shown good pace in practice.

“Our prep coming in was really good,’’ Elliott said. “[Teammate] William [Byron] had a lot of pace there so that’s good, hopefully I can figure out how to drive the vehicle faster.

“Daytona, to show up there [next week] and it be a must-win situation is like going to Vegas and having to hit the nearest slot machine for the jackpot,’’ Elliott continued. “That’s just silly. To me, this is opportunity we have the most control over and didn’t have a very good start to the weekend so it puts you in a tough spot.

“It’s no one’s fault but mine that we’re in the spot we’re in. Hate it, but it is what it is and we’ll fight tomorrow to the last lap and hopefully something will fall our way.’’

Bubba Wallace, who currently holds the final 16th Playoff transfer position will start 12th. Daniel Suárez, who is in 17th place in the championship 28 – points behind Wallace, will start 14th.

Martin Truex Jr., who currently leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship by 60-points over Hamlin, will start 19th on Sunday.

Suárez Optimistic and Poised

Suárez heads into Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen, 28 points behind Bubba Wallace – in the first position outside the Playoff-eligible top 16 drivers. The only NASCAR Cup Series victory of his career came on a road course (Sonoma, Calif.) last year and the driver of the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet arrives in upstate New York for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen feeling very optimistic.

A victory this week or in next week’s regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway would be an automatic Playoff entry. Yet, Suárez’ approach is that he doesn’t want the team focusing on making the Playoffs, the 31-year old Mexican driver wants them to be focused on winning the championship – the two goals going hand-in-hand, obviously. And he’s been good at The Glen with three top-five finishes in five starts and an average finish of 12.0.

It appeared as if Suárez was headed for that Playoff ticket at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course last weekend. He won pole position, led six of the 82 laps – and was up front all race – but a miscue on a pit stop cost him and was never able to seriously challenge winner Michael McDowell afterward.

Following the event Suárez said he had the “longest meeting ever” with his pit crew.

“That 23-second stop should have been 15-second and if it was, I would have won the race,’’ Suárez said, adding, “We failed at Indianapolis, but success comes from failure.

“I can tell you my pit crew is hungry, I’m hungry and my engineers are hungry. I can tell you we are in a good place to fight.’’

“The 99-team is ready for battle,’’ he added with a smile.

Wrapping Up the Regular Season Title

Truex  acknowledged there is a sense of familiarity between this season and his incredible 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship run. He currently holds a 60-point advantage over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin in second place. All Truex needs is to leave Watkins Glen with a 61-point advantage to officially claim the regular season title – his second. Asked if this season – three victories plus the Busch Light Clash win and nine top-five finishes – was on par with how he felt in his 2017 run for glory, Truex conceded there were similarities.

“I feel like in our years where we won our championship or finished second and were right there it was kind of the same feeling,’’ Truex said. “Every week was okay, we’re right there and if we do everything right, we’re going to be in the hunt for the win. Yeah, that feels good and hopefully we can keep that up for the next 12 races.”

Rookie Magic

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Gibbs is attempting to become only the sixth NASCAR Cup Series rookie to earn a position in the Playoffs. He starts Sunday’s race ranked 19th – 49 points off the cutline – essentially needing a victory either this week at Watkins Glen or next week in the Daytona International Speedway season finale to secure a chance at the 2023 championship run.

Gibbs won the 2021 Xfinity Series race here at Watkins Glen and will be one of four NASCAR Cup Series drivers to compete in this weekend’s doubleheader – and he started the weekend off by winning the pole position for Saturday afternoon’s Xfinity Series race and earning a fourth place position on the grid for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

In speaking with the media on Saturday, Gibbs insisted that although he essentially has two races remaining to secure a Playoff position, he prepares for every race the same; not allowing himself to get any more intense for these last two Playoff shots.

“I feel like I prepare the same for every race and with my little experience in the Cup Series compared to these guys, I have to work really hard at it and try to just do the best I can and go win,’’ said Gibbs, who drives the No. 54 JGR Toyota.

“I was closer than I am now,’’ he said of losing points in the last couple weeks. “But it’s really cool and I’m very blessed to be in this position and I’ve got a great team around me and it would be great to make the Playoffs.

“I think you just go win or you somehow have great points days.”

Austin Hill Re-ups with RCR

Richard Childress Racing started the Watkins Glen race weekend off with an important announcement, the team has re-signed NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader Austin Hill extending his contract through an undisclosed number of years.

Hill, who drives the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet, said several teams had reached out to him but that ultimately it came down to loyalty and a solid relationship with the championship owner Childress. The contract includes at least a full 2024 Xfinity Series drive, but indicated if RCR got a third NASCAR Cup Series charter, things could change.

“At the end of the day, Richard [Childress] made it pretty tough on me, just because of the man he is and everything we did last season and this season together’’ said Hill, who holds an 11-point edge on John Hunter Nemechek for the regular season championship with four races to go in the regular season.

“I’m just very very loyal to a fault and I think Richard and I share the same values, like the same things and it makes it very easy to work with someone like Richard Childress…  There’s a lot of things outside of just driving the race car that made sense to me and that’s what made it – at the end of the day, an easy decision – to stay here with RCR and to kind of keep building that momentum with them going forward and hopefully get to do that for a really long time.”

— NASCAR News Wire —