RICHMOND, Va. — Denny Hamlin won the pole Friday for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, racing about 20 miles from where he grew up in Chesterfield, turned a fast last at 122.344 mph in the third round of qualifying to claim his first pole position of the year. It’s the 24th pole position of his career and third in 21 tries on the 0.75-mile oval.

It also marks the 24th consecutive race Hamlin will start from inside the top 10.

“We were second and third so many times it was crazy,” Hamlin said about his consistently good qualifying but inability to win a pole. “We actually looked at the rainouts and it’s like, ‘We’re going to start seventh because of a rainout and it hurts our average.'”

Hamlin said his average starting position, 6.1, is the best since Jeff Gordon had a 5.0 average in 1995.

“That was a pretty cool stat to see,” he said.

The pole was somewhat unexpected, Hamlin said, because he had to run several laps in each round while others ran just one.

“I thought that for sure we had too many laps on our tires. A lot of guys that we were challenging only had one lap per session. My car didn’t really come in that quick so I had to run multiple laps,” he said. Earning the pole anyway is promising, he said.

“Running that fast with so many laps tells us we have a good car for the long run,” he said.

Kyle Larson will start on the outside of the front row, with Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray in the second row, followed by Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the third. The top 10 also includes Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

Dillon and McMurray are among the drivers hoping to cement a spot in the Chase for the championship that begins next week.

HELLO, NEWMAN: Ryan Newman needs a good weekend to qualify for the playoffs, especially after his team was docked 15 points this week for an infraction at Darlington. But didn’t make it out of the second round of qualifying and will start 15th on Saturday night.

Newman hasn’t won in his last 113 starts.

THE OTHER EARNHARDT: Dale Earnhardt Jr., isn’t racing this weekend, or for the rest of the season, while he recovers from a concussion, but Jeffrey Earnhardt will be in the field. He’ll start 40th. Jeff Gordon is once again filling in behind the wheel of Earnhardt’s No. 88 car.

HEAT INDEX: Temperatures in the mid-90s and a triple digit heat index greeted race fans Friday, and are expected again Saturday.