Denny Hamlin leads Chase drivers by winning pole at Phoenix for critical championship race

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AVONDALE, Arizona — With their title hopes on the line, most of the championship contenders delivered Friday with strong qualifying runs at Phoenix International Raceway.

Denny Hamlin led five Chase for the Sprint Cup championship drivers in the qualifying session, turning a lap at 142.113 mph to put his Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the top starting spot for Sunday's race.

Six of the eight drivers competing for a shot at the title qualified in the top seven. Only Carl Edwards (13th) and Ryan Newman (20th) failed to crack the top 10 in qualifying.

All of them are vying for the four spots in next week's championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hamlin is in decent shape: He's tied with Joey Logano for the points lead and only needs to finish 11th or better Sunday to make the finale.

He won't be conservative.

"I think the competition level is just too close and tight to be able to think you are going to coast to an 11th-place finish," Hamlin said. "You've got to go all-out on every single lap. We have to go out there and perform on a high level or else we aren't going to make it. There are too many other cars for us to think that we are just going to ride around and take a spot."

Qualifying right behind Hamlin were Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.

Harvick shoved Keselowski from behind into a scrum following last week's race at Texas. It ignited a brawl between Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and their teams and both drivers were bloodied.

But, both have a lot at stake on Sunday: Keselowski is seventh and Harvick eighth in the Chase field, and both have the mentality that they must win Sunday to make it to Homestead.

"This is a good track for us to come to, confidence wise," said Harvick, who qualified third. "We'll see how the weekend plays out. You are either going to hit a walk-off, or just race next week."

Harvick has won three of the last four races at Phoenix, including the last two November races. He won here in the spring for his first victory with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Keselowski, a six-time winner this season, has already proved once he can step up in must-win situations. He staved off elimination in the second round of the Chase by winning at Talladega.

"I know I probably need to win the race," Keselowski said. "Technically, I don't have to win this race, but the probabilities are that I do. You know if you win, you're in, and that's the great thing about this system and we have a great shot at it, for sure."

Keselowski believed his Team Penske Ford was only good enough Friday to finish second or third, and that Harvick has the field covered. Harvick doesn't think his advantage over his rivals will last.

"I feel good about our car. It's been fun to drive so far," Harvick said. "But the nature of this garage is not to have an advantage by the time the race rolls around."

Logano, Keselowski's teammate at Team Penske, was fourth, followed by GR drivers Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. The top five drivers are all racing for the championship, Busch was eliminated after the second round.

Gordon was seventh.

Despite being off the pace of the rest of the Chase drivers, Edwards was pleased.

"We were about a 25th-place car in practice and I was nervous about this and it went well, so that's good," Edwards said. "I'm telling you, we're within striking distance."

Newman wasn't as pleased.

"Yeah, it is a hole," he said. "Starting 20th is not where we wanted to be starting, but it's not where you start it's where you stop."

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