Christopher Bell won the pole for Saturday’s NASCAR Cup Series Round of 16 playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App) with a hot lap of 126.997 mph.
It’s the third consecutive pole for the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and he’s the first driver to sweep the pole awards in the opening round of the playoffs.
Bell’s JGR teammate Denny Hamlin just missed the pole by .008 seconds with a 126.93 mph and joins Bell on the front row.
“It doesn’t get much closer than that-that’s crazy tight,” Bell said of his margin over Hamlin. (But) 500 laps (on Saturday) is an awfully long time. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that qualifying means nothing for the race.”
Bell knows whereof he speaks. After winning poles at Darlington and Kansas in the first two playoff races, Bell finished 23rd and eighth, respectively. As a result, he has a 13-point margin over Truex, the first driver below the current cutoff for the Round of 12.
William Byron, Michael McDowell and Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five. Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, rookie Ty Gibbs, Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie rounded out the top 10 in Friday night’s qualifying session.
Ryan Blaney was the quickest of drivers to miss the final round of qualifying and starts 11th on Saturday night. Tyler Reddick will start 12th. A handful of playoff drivers will have work to do in the race as Kyle Busch starts 15th, Chris Buescher rolls off 20th, Kevin Harvick starts 21st, Ross Chastain starts 23rd, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. starts 25th and Joey Logano starts 28th.
Kyle Larson, who was fast in practice, got loose during his first qualifying lap and didn’t have to momentum to improve on his second lap and will start last.
Larson put down the quickest time in Friday’s lone practice session with a 126.353 circuit around the Tennessee short track. Buescher (125.724 mph) and Wallace (125.142 mph) were top three while Gibbs and Bell rounded out the top five.
Gibbs backed up his fast lap by topping the board with the best 10 consecutive lap average along with Buescher, Byron, Bell and Wallace dropping top-five averages.
Harvick and Blaney did not have great practice sessions. Still seeking to clinch spots in the Round of 12, the two were at the bottom of the top 20 on single-lap speed and both were outside the top 20 in 10 consecutive lap average.
MORE: Practice results
Contributing: Reid Spencer | NASCAR Wire Service