CONCORD, N.C. — Denny Hamlin isn't ready to say he's back — even after winning the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 with a record-setting qualifying lap Thursday.
He said he must win a Sprint Cup race before declaring that.
But Hamlin showed he continues to be on the mend after missing four races with a compression fracture in his lower spine from a March 24 crash involving Joey Logano.
Two weeks after finishing second at the Southern 500 at Darlington, Hamlin went 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.
Even in that case, Hamlin has a far bigger goal in mind.
He and Jimmie Johnson are the only drivers to make NASCAR's Chase for the Championship every year in which they have been eligible.
"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," said Hamlin, who sits 27th because of the missed races. "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 among the top five. Hamlin will start alongside Kurt Busch (Chevy) on the front row followed by Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer.
It looked like Busch would take the pole. But when Hamlin heard him say in an interview that he missed his marks on Turns 3 and 4, he decided to put aside his normally conservative qualifying nature.
"He made a mistake, and I capitalized on it," Hamlin said. "Normally, I wouldn't commit myself to running a lap like that. It's too dangerous. But we have a mission ahead."
Hamlin, who has never won a Sprint Cup race at Charlotte, was one of eight drivers to top the previous track record of 193.708 mph set in October by Greg Biffle. This is the seventh time among 12 races this season drivers have set a qualifying record.
Hamlin said he was sore for about two days after Darlington but, "Everything is good (now)."
It is Hamlin's 14th career pole and second this year. The other one came at the Auto Club in Fontana.
"How did that turn out? Great race," Hamlin said, referring to the crash that put him out.
Despite qualifying second, Busch believes he has the car to beat on Sunday after winning two segments at last week's All-Star Race on the same track
"The All-Star Race is great, but we can do better," Busch said. "Our car is so good right now."
Nabors back: Jim Nabors will return to sing Back Home Again In Indiana during prerace ceremonies for Sunday's Indianapolis 500. Nabors, 82, missed last year's race due to heart surgery. A video of him performing the song at his home in Hawaii aired instead. But Florence Henderson, an Indiana native and star of The Brady Bunch who traditionally sings God Bless America, is ill and will be replaced by Indiana native and pop singer Jon McLaughlin.