The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. started from pole position was in the 2011 Daytona 500, 60 races ago, but on Friday evening he posted a lap of 21.256s (127.023mph) at the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway to edge his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon off provisional pole in the final seconds of the time trials.
"It feels good to get a pole," beamed NASCAR's most popular driver. "It gives us a great starting spot for tomorrow we feel pretty confident about the car after practice today. Starting up front is an advantage and we will get us a nice little pit stall too. I'm just happy we are performing well and looking forward to the race.
“The car drove really good in that qualifying run," he continued. "We have been working over the last two years to improve. We weren't very good last year in qualifying all season. This year we have made some gains, so it feels good to get a pole position and know that we are improving and doing something right there."
Earnhardt added that it was rather strange that he'd never started from pole position at Richmond at the past
"Yeah, that is a bit surprising that I haven't had a pole here ever considering that I do count this in the top five or top 10 of my favourite tracks," he said. "It's a fun race track; we love running here. I think we'll have a good car tomorrow."
This weekend's Federated Auto Parts 400 race at Richmond is the final event before the Chase cut-off, which finalised the dozen drivers who will be fighting for the Sprint Cup championship for the final ten races of 2012. Nine places are already locked, with Tony Stewart also all-but assured of finishing in the top ten and booking a place in the battle to retain his title.
The crucial openings left in the Chase are the two wild card spots for those with the most wins between 11th and 20th in the standings. At the moment, Earnhardt and Gordon's team mate Kasey Kahne has booked himself a place in the Chase by having two wins so far in 2012 despite only qualifying in 21st position for this weekend's race.
"I feel a lot better about it this time but we need to perform and do a good job Saturday night," said Kahne, who said that ideally he would like to oust Stewart from the top ten and leave the reigning champion squeaking in on a wild card instead. "I'd like to get in the top 10. If we run really well and have a shot at winning the race and Tony has a bad race that gives us a shot. It'll be interesting how it all works out."
But the final spot remains very much wide open with several drivers having one win apiece and now dependant on a good night at Richmond to see them through. The wild card is currently provisionally in the hands of Kyle Busch, but Gordon's front row start alongside Earnhardt puts him in with a much better chance of wresting that from the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who qualified back in 15th.
"I think this is a big mission accomplishment for us," he said. "It has been a solid day, we have a good race car.
"I feel like we have a couple of different jobs," he explained. "Number one is just win the race, right? That's our job every weekend. But, we need to put pressure on our competitors. Pressure on the guys we are going to have to beat to win this race, as well as pressure on the guys we are battling with to make this Chase.
“As good as our car was today, to be able to start up front; those are all great positives," he agreed. "We never go out there focused on one other individual. We go out there focused on our job, and what we have to do to win the race. That is what we plan on doing."
But the reality was that at the end of the day, his Chase hopes really did come down to beating one man in particular.
"It's really Kyle's to lose," Gordon admitted. "We know that Kyle is going to be strong in this race. But, we're going to try to keep the pressure on him and the other guys that we are battling with out there."
"We have nothing to lose and everything to gain," he continued, adding: "I'm just thankful we've performed as well as we have the last couple weeks to give ourselves a shot."
As for how his qualifying lap had gone, he said: "I got three and four great coming to the green and coming back to the white. I just didn't quite get through one and two the way I would have liked to. I actually got down to the yellow line a little bit earlier than I wanted to. I could have carried a little bit more speed in there - there is some speed left out there, but still a solid day."
Regan Smith and Clint Bowyer will line up on the second row of the grid for the start of the race, with Smith saying that he was "real happy" with the first of his two timed laps.
"I didn't quite get what I wanted that second lap, but the first lap was enough - we are proud of that," he said, giving the credit to his mechanics and his crew chief. "These guys have been working really hard. The guys in the shop have been working really hard. Todd Barrier came on board a few weeks back with us and that has been a good change, a lot of excitement out of this team."
On the third row of the grid will be another Hendrick Motorsports driver, five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who will take his place alongside the veteran wizard of the wheel Mark Martin.
"Things feel good so we will get this Lowe's Chevy dusted off and ready to go for tomorrow night," said Johnson after setting his time of 21.295s (126.790mph) just 0.039s off his team mate's pole effort.
Joe Gibbs Racing team mates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano clinched the fourth row, with Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top ten.
"I could have done a little bit better job with the lap but all in all in I was proud of how it went," said Keselowski, who denied that he'd had a scare in turn 2 that had nearly put him into the fence. "Nah, I was just trying real hard. That's my job!" he said.
It was a bad night for Ford drivers, however, with Carl Edwards ending up the highest of the stable despite only managing to qualify in 16th alongside Kyle Busch despite having topped the happy hour second practice session earlier on Friday.
“One side of the track is sunny and one side is dark and I just messed up both sides a little bit," admitted Edwards. "I think we have a really good race car ... I think we will be just fine. I am excited about this race. The car was really fast in the last practice. In race trim, we were the fastest car in the last practice I think, so that is good.”
JJ Yeley and Mark Green failed to qualify for the 43-car grid and will not make the race.
However, the weather forecasts for tomorrow night's scheduled 7pm start for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond point to showers and storms hitting the circuit at just the wrong moment. With dryer weather not looking likely until around 10pm and the track needing to be dried before racing can commence, the situation could force the race to roll over to Sunday afternoon instead when the forecasts are much better - a delay that would only heighten the tension in the Chase stakes.
The weather wasn't a factor in Friday's night's Nationwide Series activities, however; and the Camping World Truck Series is having a week off and will return to action next week on September 15 at Iowa Speedway.
Full qualifying and Friday practice session times