A heavy thunderstorm sweeping over Bristol Motor Speedway meant that the Sprint Cup drivers were denied the chance to set qualifying laps for Saturday evening's IRWIN Tools Night Race following a qualifying wash-out.
Casey Mears had earlier put in the top time of 15.701s (122.209 mph) during the marathon two hour first practice session on Friday, and was glad that he did as NASCAR rules set the starting grid according to the times from that session, handing Mears his first Cup pole since 2007 at Chicagoland when he was driving for Hendrick Motorsports. He'll start the race alongside Brad Keselowski, who was just six thousands of a second slower than Mears in that first session.
"It's exciting for us, I think it's going to be good. Obviously, starting up front at Bristol period is always a good thing," said Mears after his good fortune was confirmed. "I think it's exciting for our team to be able to have this opportunity to have the first pit selection starting up towards the front. It gives us a big head start from where we've been in the past."
Even though clinching pole position is the result of good luck with the weather, Mears still had to earn it with his practice performance.
"We were pretty embarrassed at how we showed up here last time," he admitted. "We were playing catch-up the first part of this year and to be able to put a little time into it and work at it.
"We unloaded way better than we were here last time," he continued. "Race trim felt pretty good as well and when they switched over to qualifying trim we were 15th to 12th and they made a substantial adjustment in the right direction and we were able to shoot to the top of the board. It's exciting for us. I think it's going to be good.
Mears' team, Germain Racing, has been struggling for both sponsorship as well as form in 2012 and had been a start-and-park entry in previous races, but Mears confirmed that he had the backing to make a full run of it this weekend - especially now he'll start from the front.
"Bristol is one that we're definitely going to run," he said. "We run next weekend in Atlanta, so a good run here would definitely set us off right for a good week next week as well."
The lengthy early practice session had been in order to allow drivers to get used to the changes made to Bristol since the series last visited the circuit, which has seen progressive banking altered to promote close racing, but Mears said that it was too early to tell how the changes would affect the racing grooves available to drivers on Saturday night.
"It's hard to say yet because where they actually worked on the track we haven't actually been all the way up there yet," he explained. "I've seen some guys flirting with the edge of it, so it's really going to be hard to say.
"Nobody has really run up there where they really changed the surface yet. If it keeps guys from running up against the wall, I think it could make it a little bit more competitive - just because when guys are running right up against the fence and it's really hard to pass guys down underneath, you're hesitant to get in the back of them and kind of move them out of the way a little because you know it's going to put them in the wall," he said. "So if it can keep guys within a car width or car width-and-a-half away from the wall, it's going to allow for at least some of that old-style racing back a little bit.”
Greg Biffle and Joey Logano will start on the second row, with Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola taking the green flag in fifth place.
"I think, right now, we've got a two-groove race track, and it's going to be really tough to pass," said Almirola about the track changes. "If it's tougher to pass, you're going to see a little more rooting and gouging, which is what the fans want.
"I think people have flirted with getting close to it, but it's pretty slick. I think during the race, people might get up there. Probably not by choice, but they might get up there!" he added.
Carl Edwards concurred: "I don't want to be the first guy to go up there if there's no grip," he said.
Far less happy with the changes was Kyle Busch, who has been very successful at Bristol in the past and was succinct in his view of the new configuration: "I think it's terrible. That's about it," he said. He'll start from tenth place on the grid.
One driver especially caught out by the cancellation of qualifying was Jimmie Johnson, whose practice session time was only good enough for a woeful 37th place on the grid, after the #48 team decided not to focus on speed runs in practice.
"Our commitment to race trim bit us today," admitted Johnson on Twitter.
Once the storm passed over the area, the weather quickly dried up and the track driers got to work. Fortunately, with Bristol being only a half mile short oval, the process didn't take as long as it would have elsewhere and the Friday evening Food City 250 Nationwide Series race was expected to proceed with only a slight delay.
Full starting grid and practice times