Jimmie Johnson got his 2012 Chase campaign off to the best possible start by claiming pole position for Sunday's GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, the first of the ten post-season play-off races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
"I felt really good about that lap," he said immediately after his qualifying run, which came early in the session after an intentionally slow showing in the Friday practice runs that determined the running order.
"We were trying to be smart, but at the same time we wanted to work on race trim in that first practice and stayed focused on it," said Johnson of their strategy going into qualifying. "We felt like the second practice session the temps would be closer to know than anything. It just kind of worked into our favour that way."
Johnson has another security blanket boosting him in qualifying, with the Hendrick Motorsports team having specifically kept a tried-and-tested car to use here in Chicago this weekend.
"This car has ran twice and we didn't want to hurt it," revealed Johnson. "It's been sitting there since Indy waiting to run again," he said, explaining that the squad routinely set aside "cars that we like. When we have success with cars, we'll push them off to the side as we get closer to the Chase. I don't want to screw up the record this car has. It's been awfully good for us."
Johnson and his team will certainly be hoping that this car lives up to expectations and doesn't meet with any ill fortune during Sunday's 400-mile race, which Johnson will start from the front after his lap of 29.530s (182.865mph) was 0.037s faster than Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola who will start alongside him on the second row.
"I am happy with that," said Almirola, happy with the way that the weekend is going so far. "It is going really good. We unloaded with a really good car, a really stable car. It drove really nice right off the truck so we have just been fine tuning it."
Almirola is not involved in the Chase, but both cars starting on the second row are - Johnson's Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. cinched third and Roush Renway Racing's Matt Kenseth is alongside him in fourth.
“The car was awesome, real good, good grip," said Earnhardt. "One and two felt awesome, good speed; three and four were a little bit tight," he added. "We were real happy with the car yesterday. It had good speed in practice, felt real comfortable with the car. I'm looking forward to it."
Kenseth didn't sound quite so thrilled about his own qualifying run by contrast. "I was happy from the aspect that I got everything we could get out of it for today," he said. "I feel like I got a good lap but I think there is some more speed out there."
Having failed to sneak into the Chase, Carl Edwards ironically got one of his better qualifying results of recent weeks and will start form fifth place on Sunday alongside the third of the four Hendrick team mates, Kasey Kahne.
"It was a very good lap - that is a very fast race car," said Edwards. "My lap wasn't perfect but the speed was there. I am happy with it, I think it is really good. I don't know yet about race trim tomorrow - we are working on it still and hopefully it will be good. That is a good lap though."
Kahne was similarly happy with the outcome: "The car feels really good, I just kind of drove in a little too hard into one and I got tight because I over shot the corner," he recalled. "Once I got it to turn I felt really good from there out. I was happy with it. I think our race stuff will be really good tomorrow, I'm looking forward to it."
The final member of the four-man Hendrick squad - all of whom had made it into the 2012 Chase - is Jeff Gordon, but he was off the pace of his team mates on Saturday afternoon and will start the race from 19th position tomorrow.
"No near as good as good as I was hoping for," he admitted. "We ran the same time we did yesterday so it wasn't a very good lap. It's going to put us back. The car was a little bit loose, I think a lot of people are struggling with that."
By contrast to Johnson's opening success, reigning champion Tony Stewart slumped to 29th place in qualifying. Stewart can at least take small consolation in knowing that he is not the lowest of the Chase contenders on the grid tomorrow, with Kevin Harvick starting from 35th place.
Danica Patrick made it into the race on car owner points but will start down in 41st position. Scott Riggs, Reed Sorenson, JJ Yeley and Jason Leffler all failed to make the 43-car grid.
“It was loose, really loose," said Patrick, admitting that her lack of Cup experience was showing this weekend. "I'm definitely not good enough at this point to know how to fix that; or exactly what I even what I need even necessarily going into qualifying.
"I'm still at the point where we are going to have good things happen and bad things happen in the weekend. Definitely getting going in practice was a good thing for us and getting closer on race runs was a good thing for us," she continued. "The last one I did which was Atlanta: we popped off a good lap in qualifying but we weren't so great in practice. Here I would say we were better in practice but our qualifying lap wasn't any good.
"These things are going to happen on the weekends," she shrugged. "We just need to keep finding the good stuff and work on how to make that happen all the time.”
There had been an unusual incident in the garage area ahead of the second practice session on Friday which saw Chase contenders Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski make heavy contact before they were even out on the track. Both drivers said that they had been confused by apparently contradictory hand signal from the NASCAR official in charge of blending the traffic from the team garage areas to the track itself.
"The guy did something different than normal," said Truex of the official who had held up his hand to stop Keselowski, catching out Truex himself who ran into the back of the #2 car. "I was just checking to make sure a car wasn't coming (from the left) and he already hit the brakes and I was like, 'Oh, s**t.'"
Truex took the blame for the mishap that left him with some front end damage to the #56 car. "My bad. Totally my fault. You get in a hurry in and out of the garage, and it's kind of hard to see what the guy is doing, you know?" he said, admitting: "It scared me pretty bad."
Keselowski's car suffered more serious damage to the rear end of his Dodge. While he tried to find Truex in the garage to talk with after the session, a looming Nationwide practice session meant there was no time. In any case, Keselowski felt that his sudden need to jump on the brakes at the behest of the NASCAR official was as much to blame as anything.
"There are more people in the garage than the stands, that's the problem," he said. "You're trying not to run over people and you can't see what's going on ... I couldn't see the damn guy because there are too many people."
After all that commotion, Truex finished 25th in the times in practice 2 after having set the fastest lap in the first session with a time of 29.709s (181.763 mph). Kyle Busch was fastest in the later session with a lap of 29.751s (181.507 mph), just 0.048s faster than Aric Almirola.Full qualifying and practice times