Valentino Rossi will start the first of four chances to secure the 2008 MotoGP World Championship from the head of the second row, having qualified a slightly 'disappointing' fourth at Motegi on Saturday.
Rossi's Fiat Yamaha team-mate Jorge Lorenzo sealed an impressive pole position and will lead the field, with Rossi's nearest title rival Casey Stoner second for Ducati and Nicky Hayden third for Honda.
Even if Stoner wins, Rossi can win his first MotoGP title since 2006 if he finishes third on Sunday. Tenth or better will also guarantee an end to the challenge of third-in-the-championship Dani Pedrosa, due to start alongside Rossi in fifth.
Rossi took provisional pole with his first qualifying tyre run of this afternoon, but was displaced soon after by Stoner, who was in turn bumped back by Lorenzo.
Despite improving with his next runs, Rossi was unable to make a dent in his team-mate's time and was then held up by a fallen Alex de Angelis on his last attempt, meaning he was unable to improve and was edged off the front row by Hayden as a result.
"Honestly I'm a bit disappointed because the front row was our target today, but anyway fourth isn't too bad," said Valentino. "Unfortunately we spent a bit too much time with the race tyres and started our qualifying sequence a few minutes late, this meant that I was maybe one or two minutes late going out with my last tyre and I got a bit caught up with traffic when de Angelis fell.
"Anyway, our race pace is quite good so I am confident that we can be in the fight, although we will have to get a good start," he continued. "We have one or two small problems that we need to work on so we will use the warm-up to check a few things and I think we can improve a little bit more. I am not thinking about the championship right now, I will just aim for the podium and see what happens."
"For tomorrow the race pace is good and we're definitely in the mix but there are three or four riders with a good pace so it will definitely be a hard fight tomorrow," declared team manager Davide Brivio. "Our target will be to stay in the fight and finish on the podium. Congratulations to Jorge and his team for making a return to pole."
Rossi has won the last four races in a row.