David Reutimann bounced back from a lean season to put the #00 on pole position for the first time since Dover in 2009, his laptime of 21.196s (127.382mph) just 0.008s faster than Jamie McMurray on the 0.75 mile D-shaped oval at Richmond International Raceway.
Hendrick Motorsports duo Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin took the second row of the grid, with Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton making up an all-Richard Childress Racing third row.
Taking pole for the last pre-Chase event is the biggest mark the Michael Waltrip Racing driver had made in 2011, other than his scary and spectacular final lap crash with David Ragan at Watkins Glen. "It's been a little bit of a dry spell," Reutimann admitted after claiming his third Cup career pole. "I think what you're seeing here is a direct result of [the team] doing something different."
The race will decide the final Chase qualifiers, but Reutimann is not in contention as he is currently a distant 28th in the points. That's good news in one respect - it means that all he has to think about on Saturday is trying all-out for the win. "Our only choice now to turn our season around is to go out and win a couple of races and get some top-five finishes," he said.
Of those still seeking to clinch a Chase place, Clint Bowyer will start from fifth place and AJ Allmendinger in ninth place: both need an outright win and to overtake Denny Hamlin in the points to claim the last wildcard position.
"Yeah, it is pretty simple, we have to win and get a little bit of help," said Allmendinger before qualifying. "We don't have to worry about everyone else and where they're at, points-wise, until you cross the finish line. And unless we win it doesn't matter."
Hamlin has certainly not made it easy for himself to stay safe on Saturday night with a starting grid position of 28th. He could also be ousted from the wildcard position by one of the current one-time winners claiming the win and finishing in the top 20, but Paul Menard will be starting from 15th, David Ragan from 20th and Marcos Ambrose from 33rd, so wins there look unlikely.
"I always feel like we want to qualify on the pole every time and I am a little disappointed we aren't up there in the top ten," said Ragan." We have a good race car though and it is a car that can win if we put ourselves in the right position, so I am pretty happy."
Ambrose was rather more frustrated. "You know, I am just confused right now. I thought that was better than that," he said of his laptime. "I thought that was a decent lap but turns out that it wasn't. I don't really know right now what we need to get better at for tomorrow, but we will get to work on it."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart could still fall out of the Chase if Brad Keselowski ousts one of them from the top ten places in the championship points, but Keselowski would need to finish over 20pts ahead of one them to achieve this. Keselowski starts from 19th, Stewart from 22nd and Earnhardt from 27th.
Mike Skinner, Erik Darnell and TJ Bell failed to qualify for the 43-car grid. Former F1 driver Scott Speed squeezed onto the grid in 41st place.
The "Wonderful Pistachios 400" Cup race is due to start at shortly after 7.30pm local time (12.30am Sunday morning BST). The race is aired on ABC in the US and in the UK will be carried live by the satellite subscription channel Premier Sports TV.
Full qualifying times and positions