Jimmie Johnson claimed his first pole position since September 2010, when he pipped Kyle Busch to the top spot by 0.065s in qualifying at Kentucky Speedway late on Friday afternoon.
"Qualifying has not been our strong suit in the last couple of years," said Johnson. "I'm very happy to get this pole today. My Chevy's bad fast, and I'm looking forward to going racing."
Johnson's timed lap on the 1.5-mile oval was 29.700s (181.818mph), which was just good enough to put him on the top spot for the start of the Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race on Saturday evening.
The last time that Johnson started on pole was 60 races ago at Dover in 2010, even though he's started in the top ten no less than 10 of the 16 races before now in 2012.
"We have been in a dry spell in qualifying, we have had a lot of seconds and a lot of very fast race cars," Johnson admitted. "I have always been much better at racing and I have always like to have a rabbit or somebody out there to chase and today you know, things went well in race trim and in qualifying trim and I got a great lap there in qualifying."
Qualifying was interrupted for 17 minutes by violent winds sweeping through the area which sent everyone scurrying for cover and many of the temporary structures around the speedway were violently knocked around. At least one pit lane worker was reported as having been sent to hospital for minor injuries sustained in the sudden chaos.
Once the winds subsided again it turned out that they had cooled the track considerably, which had added grip for the remaining 25 drivers still to make their laps - which included Johnson and Busch, and also Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick who will start from the second row.
"The track is much more friendly in cooler temperatures," admitted Johnson. "It's amazing with the 30-40 degree drop that we had and how much more grip there was in the track."
The fastest man before the windstorm had been Scott Speed, and the first man out after the hiatus - Tony Stewart - promptly beat his laptime by over two tenths. Speed ended up almost nine tenths off pole time by the end, the fastest of the non-guaranteed drivers in 24th position on the grid. JJ Yeley and Mike Skinner were the two cars that failed to qualify for the race on speed.
"We know when they hold us like that there is a reason," said Stewart afterwards. "They knew what was coming. We just waited until they said it was good and when they said it was okay we knew it was going to be alright.”
As well as the sudden windstorm, the heat continues to be an issue with severe heatwaves stretching across large parts of the US bringing 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to Kentucky this weekend, even for the start of the evening Nationwide and Cup races. Track conditions were consequently very slick and lacking grip, which will likely make the race duration longer.
Kyle Busch had previously topped Practice 1 with a time of 30.371s (177.801 mph) ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., while Jeff Gordon topped Practice 2 with a lap of 30.840s (175.097 mph) ahead of Brad Keselowski.
There had earlier been contact between Keselowski and Juan Montoya within five minutes of the start of Practice 1, with Keselowski ending up in the wall and resorting to the backup car for the weekend. Montoya's #42 was repaired but there was then more contact between the two with some measure of retribution seemingly involved with Keselowski making repeated contact with the rear of Montoya's car which resulted in the officials bringing out the caution flags.
"We didn't even do a lap, I wasn't even up to speed," Montoya told TV reporters about the original incident. "I came out of the pits. They told me he had a big run. I put my hand out to wave at him. I started turning and running high. I think he thought he'd cleared me and he was probably going to run high and run straight into me."
Keselowski made no comment after practice 1, and pointed out he was on his way to Nationwide Series qualifying immediately after the session. "I've got to go make it race, so I don't have time to worry about that."
As for the follow-up incident, Keselowski said: "In the second practice, I felt like he pulled up in front of me to intentionally screw my lap up again.
“So I was done with that," he continued. "You have to stand your ground. If I let one person push me around, I let everybody push me around. My team works way too hard and I'm not going to stand for that."
Full qualifying and practice times