Matt Kenseth claimed pole position for the first time on the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, and will start the Coke Zero 400 Saturday night race alongside reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart.
"Our lap was obviously a good one - it was faster than the rest!" he said afterwards. " I had very little to do with it, so qualifying at the speedway races is all about the car and the engine and those guys did a spectacular job at Roush all year long really in preparing our speedway cars," he added, paying testament to Roush Fenway, the team he's just announced that he wil be leaving a the end of 2012.
Although he's not started from pole at Daytona before, Kenseth won the Daytona 500 only a few months ago at the start of the 2012 season, and clearly has a feel for one of NASCAR's fastest and most gruelling tracks. If he were to win again on Saturday, he would be the first driver in 30 years to claim two Daytona titles in one season - the last to do so being Hall of Famer Bobby Allison.
"The pole is different," he admitted. "I've never won a speedway pole. Certainly you know you didn't have a lot to do with the outcome compared to all the other race tracks, but it's great to be on the pole. It puts us in the [Daytona] Shootout for next year.
"Starting that thing from the front, I think that first pit stall is always a little bit of an advantage," he added. "Hopefully, you can get out front and manage your temperatures a little bit and hopefully get a bonus point or two for leading some laps.”
Kenseth's pole time of 45.492s (197.837 mph) was just six thousandths of a second ahead of reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart, who in turn was just two thusandths of a second faster than his Stewart/Haas Racing team mate Ryan Newman.
But instead it's Newman who will line-up alongside Kenseth on the front row of the grid, after Stewart's qualifying time was deleted for a technical infringement (an open cooling hose found under the cockpit, which could provide aerodymamic benefit.)
Bill Elliott was the fastest non-guaranteed driver to make the field, in only his second Cup start of the year and his first in a one-off outing with Turner Motorsports, while Robert Richardson Jr. was the only non-qualifier for the 43-car grid
Denny Hamlin successfully qualified the #11 car in 24th position alongside team mate Kyle Busch, despite Hamlin having opted not to take part in Thursday's practice sessions and having decided to pull out of his scheduled appearance in Friday night's Nationwide Series event because of a sore back.
Hamlin explained that he's suffered from inherited back problems involving torn and bulging disks in his vertebra for years and that the pounding he'd taken at the bumpy Kentucky Speedway last weekend had sparked off another attack. He hadn't realised how serious it was until he went to dinner after the race - and couldn't stand up again. Although his condition has eased since that scare, Hamlin decided not to push things ahead of this weekend's Cup race.
"Basically any other race track, I'd be on track at this point," he insisted. "But I've made such decent to good progress through this week, that you don't want to give that up by getting in a wreck and then jeopardizing being able to start the Cup race. I decided to sit everything out until I'm absolutely needed, and then we'll take it from there."
His back doesn't require surgery at this point, and exercises should help strengthen it for the time being.
"We know how to treat it," he said. "This is something that I just kind of let get away in 2008 or whenever it happened the first time. Now that we have diagnosed it, we can make it better. I anticipate this really won't happen again."
The Joe Gibbs Racing team will have a relief driver on standby just in case, but Hamlin doesn't expect to need to resort to it.
Full qualifying and Thursday practice times