RICHMOND, Va. - Rookie Denny Hamlin, as calm and cool as ever, grabbed the pole for tonight's NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Richmond, by far the biggest challenge yet for the youngster.
"I think qualifying up front is going to be a big deal," Hamlin said after wrapping up his third pole of the season and the fourth of his brief career with a lap of 127.986 mph. "I hope we can lead at least one lap and then just hang in there and get a good finish."
The 25-year-old is one of nine drivers battling for the final spots in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship, a 10-race showdown that begins next week.
Most of the contenders came out strong in Friday night's qualifying on the .75-mile oval, but there were some disappointments, too.
Right behind Hamlin were Jeff Burton, currently holding the 10th and final spot in the Chase by 30 points over Kasey Kahne, at 127.805, and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, fourth in the standings, at 127.690.
Mark Martin, two points in front of Burton in ninth, qualified fourth, followed by third-place Kevin Harvick. Kyle Busch, fifth in the points, was 12th.
"It doesn't really matter where we start," said Martin, a four-time series runner-up in his last full-time Cup season. "If the thing will race that good, we'll be OK."
IRL: Danica Patrick is nervous about Sunday's PEAK Antifreeze Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway. And excited. And a bit emotional.
The race will close a difficult season for Rahal Letterman Racing and bring Patrick's tenure there to an end. She signed with Andretti Green Racing in July, and though she's looking forward to joining her new team, she's grateful for the opportunity Rahal gave her.
"It's something new, and change is good," Patrick said. "But I'm going to miss not being able to see some of the guys as much as I do driving for (Rahal)."
FORMULA 1: Ferrari's Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa set the practice pace Friday for the Italian Grand Prix.
Schumacher and Massa - winner of the Turkish GP two weeks ago - clocked the second and third fastest times in the afternoon session. Ferrari is expected to select its drivers for the 2007 season after Sunday's race, and there is speculation about Schumacher because his contract expires at the end of this season.