Greg Biffle took pole position in qualifying at Darlington Raceway, his late-session run of 27.281s (180.257 mph).

That put the current Cup championship leader ahead of Hendrick Motorsport duo Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne on the grid, who have their sights set on delivering the team's landmark 200th Cup series win at the Southern 500 under the floodlights on Saturday.

Biffle has been on pole position at Darlington once before in May 2008, but he'll be hoping for very different luck to that occasion: after leading the race for 95 laps, he succumbed to engine trouble and finished in 43rd place. He'll be hoping it's much more like his two previous Darlington victories instead, in 2005 and 2009.

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"This is what a race car driver looks forward to, showing up every weekend and having a really fast car to drive," said the polesitter. "The car just had a ton of grip. It stuck to the race track really, really well."

Biffle's pole lap was just over a tenth faster than the identical times set by Johnson and Kahne. Johnson gets the front row slot alongside Biffle, leaving Kahne to start on the second row alongside Ryan Newman.

"It was just a great lap," said Johnson of his own run. "We have been working hard on the car all day. It had a lot of comfort and speed in it.

"I'm proud of that lap [but] I felt like there was a little bit left in turns three and four that I didn't get down there," he added. "I knew I left a little time on the table down there, and Greg went out and found it."

"I think we definitely made some gains," said Kahne. "It was just a little bit slippery, sliding around a little bit. It was a lot better than where we were in practice. I think the guys did a nice job preparing a little better."

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. start immediately behind them, with the rest of the top ten comprised of Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Regan Smith and Jeff Burton.

Aiming for her second Cup Series start, Danica Patrick qualified in 38th position with a lap of 28.021s (175.497mph), which would have been fast enough to allow her to qualify for the grid even if the car had not been pre-qualified on car owner points - and no small achievement.

Patrick also "earned her stripes" in Friday's track activity, and in the context of Darlington this means that she left a big, black line down the outside wall of the raceway after running too high. t's a rite of passage for any driver coming to Darlington, and a badge of honour in its own way.

"I've got my Darlington stripes officially," she said afterwards. "It's all the way down the right side of the car. We got that one over with."

Darlington is considered one of the hardest challenges for any newcomer to NASCAR, and Patrick hadn't made it easy for herself by double-entering in the Sprint Cup race as well as Nationwide, which resulted in a packed schedule starting with a rookie briefing at 7pm and running all the way through to 10pm with the end of the Nationwide evening race.

Josh Wise was the fastest qualifying series rookie in 30th position. Scott Riggs, Michael McDowell, Stephen Leicht and Mike Bliss all failed to qualify for the 43-car starting grid for Saturday evening's race.

Full qualifying and practice times available.