Jeff Gordon claimed pole position for the second round of the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, as he attempts to bounce back from his disastrous outing last weekend at Chicago.
"This car has been awesome in qualifying trim all day long," said Gordon after his 28.232s (134.911mph) lap, which put him 0.033s ahead of Kyle Busch in the final timings. "What an awesome effort, great lap. It felt good.
"The car got off the corner really strong and I thought that it would be really close and as tight as these times are you just never know," he continued. "Kyle laid down a heck of a lap so did Tony there to shoot for and man I'm so proud. That felt great. To go out and get a pole on a non-restrictor track, we haven't done that in a little while so this feels really good."
Gordon's only previous pole in 2012 was at one of those restrictor plates tracks - Talladega - which was also where he'd won his only pole of 2011. He has to look all the way back to Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2010 for a pole position away from the superspeedways.
Gordon did get a little aerodynamic advantage in qualifying - by deciding to shave off the old-style 70s moustache he'd started to grow after pledging one if he made it into the Chase, which he had.
"I did the moustache because somebody said, 'Hey, bring back the moustache,'" he explained. "I said, 'Well, if we make the Chase then I'll bring it back.' So I brought it back and then with the way that it went last week I was like, 'Okay, I'm done with the moustache.' I just changed my mind."
Did that mean Gordon accepted that the disastrous outing at Chicago last week was the end of his Chase hopes in 2012? Not necessarily, the four-time champion insisted.
"It's not that we're out of it by any means, we know we have a lot of work to do, but we can certainly win this thing," he said. "With all we've been through, last week was a bump in the road, but it's not putting us in that mind frame where we're just completely devastated and feel like we're out of it."
So what did he have to do to put himself back in the running? "We have to score a lot more points than the other guys," he laughed. "How do you know what that is? The problem is that you have 11 guys that you have to do that with.
"It's going to have to be pretty extraordinary," he conceded. "Right next to miraculous. Miraculous things have happened so that's what keeps us motivated and keeps us going forward is that anything can happen and crazier things have happened before."
Starting alongside Gordon on Sunday will be Kyle Busch - with is rather ironic, given that it was Gordon who bumped Busch out of the Chase by just 3pts in the final regular season race at Richmond.
"Practice didn't quite go the way we wanted it to, we sort of struggled early and didn't quite get the draw we had hoped for and had to go out a little bit early today," explained Busch. "The guys made some really nice changes from practice to qualifying to get the car a lot better - and it reacted well and was really fast. I was actually shocked by the time it ran, but pleased with it at the same time.
"But Jeff had a really good draw at the end and beat us by a little bit," he added. "Still it's good for track position to be able to start up front like that here at Loudon."
Gordon's late pole lap also demoted Tony Stewart off the front row of the grid for Sunday's race, but he was content enough with third place.
"It seemed like it got better grip the second lap, just took a little longer for the tyres to come in," he said. "It is a lot shorter race, which I like the length of the race, but, if you get hemmed-up in the back, it can be a long day.
He'll start alongside Brian Vickers, who replaces Mark Martin in the #55 Michael Waltrip Racing car this weekend. Vicker's two MWR team mates who are both in the Chase - Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer - qualified in ninth and 12th respectively.
"I let one get away from us there," admitted Truex of his run. "I think we had a shot at the pole. I just slipped on the second lap, got loose and got the right front above the seam down in one and two and it's like once you do that you're done."
Jeff Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Kasey Kahne continued a quietly impressive second half of the year, by laying claim to sixth place on the grid, with Dale Earnhardt in 14th place on the grid while Jimmie Johnson will start from 20th.
"I just wish I could do the laps over," said Kahne. "It felt really good, my car felt perfect - I just didn't really go that fast!" he explained. "I was surprised when I was coming off the corner that I knew I was going too slow and so I just picked the throttle up too late."
Earnhardt was similarly non-plussed with his efforts on Friday afternoon. "It wasn't anything special," he admitted. "We just kind of struggled all day trying to find speed in the car ... It's not going to be the best starting spot. We'll just have to race hard."
Earnhardt will start just ahead of an all-Chase eighth row consisting of Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, while Matt Kenseth ended up a distant 25th place for the start of Sunday's race.
However Denny Hamlin was the worst qualifier among the Chase contenders, ending up in 32nd place on the starting grid after his team put on tyres inflated at the wrong pressure for qualifying.
"I knew something was wrong," he said after his run. "We ended up having race pressures and we didn't put our qualifying pressures in, so that was a tough one. I knew something was really, really wrong because we were just - the car was bobbing down real bad - but simple mistake.
"That's frustrating," he admitted. "Holy cow - I knew something had to be wrong. If there was nothing wrong than I would really be shaking my head. At least we identified what the problem was."
Rookie Josh Wise initially qualified for the 43-car line-up, but subsequently had his lap times disallowed after it was found that his rear shock absorber was pressurised above permitted levels. He will join Scott Riggs, Jason Leffler and Jeff Green on the sidelines on Sunday, while David Stremme benefits from Wise's misfortune and makes the start after all.
Full qualifying and practice 1 times