After missing four races with a broken back, Hamlin not only turned the fastest lap at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, he shattered the track record at 195.624 mph.
The only way Hamlin can get into the playoffs is to win a race or two in the next 15 events and finish among the top 20 in the point standings.
“We have a mission ahead and that’s making the Chase,” Hamlin said. “You have to have every advantage you can. Hopefully his is a good sign of things to come. Any confidence booster for me is a positive step.”
He is 26th in the current standings heading into Sunday’s 600-mile marathon. More important, he’s 61 points from the top 20.
A possible victory – and a jet-fast No. 11 Toyota – would go a long way to getting Hamlin back into contention.
While NASCAR’s new Generation-6 race car has yet to produce a lot of side-by-side racing as hoped, it has proven to be fast. Hamlin’s record was the seventh record set this year in 10 qualifying sessions this year. Two other time trials this year were rained out.
Eight of 44 drivers broke Greg Biffle’s eight-month-old track record of 192.708 mph.
“You hear a lot of drivers talk about the commitment level,” Hamlin said. “You still have to have a fast car. It takes so much nerve to do that. Proud to be back on the race track. We’re getting things going right now. This is like a victory for me.”
Kurt Busch set the tone early with a lap of 195.221 mph that had everyone on pit road wondering just how much the record would fall. Busch wound up second.
“I didn’t do my job,” Busch said. “That shows how much these guys are doing their job here. They keep bringing new pieces every week. I left some speed out there.”
Busch said he didn’t attack the third and fourth turns as hard as he could.
Matt Kenseth was third at 195.094 mph, followed by Mark Martin in fourth, Clint Bowyer in fifth, Kasey Kahne in sixth, Biffle in seventh, Kyle Busch in eighth, Jamie McMurray in ninth and Ryan Newman in 10th.
“That ain’t even close,” Martin said. “I knew it was fast, but it wasn’t even close.”
“There was no screwing up anywhere for me,” Biffle said. “That was all the speed we had.”