After Denny Hamlin won last weekend with a dominant performance at New Hampshire, the big question was whether he could maintain his Chase momentum through this week's race at Dover International Speedway, a circuit that hasn't suited him all that well in the past.
He took care of the sceptics at the earliest opportunity, when he clinched pole position by a slender 0.005s on the one-mile oval with a lap of 22.599s (159.299 mph), with his fellow Chase contender Clint Bowyer set to start alongside him on the front row for Sunday afternoon's AAA 400 race, the third event of the 2012 Chase.
"There's no reason we can't win," said Hamlin after qualifying. "We've been working on getting our cars better and driving better," he added, remaining characteristically modest: "I think probably 75 percent was the car and 25 percent the driver."
As for why Dover has not been a happy hunting ground for him int he past, Hamlin explained that the track's characteristics simply didn't seem to gel with his personal way of driving.
"I typically don't run as strong on corner entry and use less brake is my driving style on a lot of race tracks, he explained. "Here, it just really rewards driving in hard, using the brake and then just matting it on exit. I'm typically better with throttle management on exit.
"Between that and the concrete that I don't have the good of a feel for," he continued. "I just think that it's tough for me to change the way I've been driving for twenty-some years when I come to this track. Its habits that I've tried to break," he added, revealing that he'd been watching a lot of films of how he drives to try and break down the issues and improve his performances at Dover.
"That's the only way you can continue to stay on top in this sport is to continue to evolve," he pointed out. "You just can't rest on what you've been doing for forever because these drivers are just too good.
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer was disappointed to lose out on pole by such a spender margin, while his team mate Martin Truex Jr. will start from third position.
"When you get that close and miss, it's a missed opportunity," Bowyer admitted. "I looked over on the second lap, I knew I kind of screwed my lap up. Crossed the finish line and saw I was in second and I knew it was close."
"It's a good day for us, we've had a good car all weekend long," said Truex, who also felt that pole position had been within his reach. "I just messed up in three and four a little bit. We should have had the pole there. That's my bad."
Other Chase contenders in the top ten include Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle in sixth, Hendrick Motorports' Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne in seventh and ninth respectively, and Penske's Brad Keselowski in tenth.
"That was a really good lap," said Biffle. "A little bit too free, but it was a better lap than we've been putting down. The car turned really good ... We'll get a good pit road selection. We think our car is pretty good, but we thought that the last couple of weeks until the race started, but we do feel better about this car with the way we ran in practice."
Gordon was happy to have been one of the first cars out to make a qualifying run. "It's good that we went early, the track has good grip," he said. "I got a decent lap [but] I didn't get the best lap. When the track is like this you just think 'Wow this is Dover, so fast, high banked, it's cool' - and you just go and jump on the gas, and you just can't."
Kasey Kahne, meanwhile, admitted that he had been somewhat caught out by the grip in the overcast conditions. "The weather surprised me a little bit - I thought the track would be a little slippery today in qualifying but it had a lot of grip out there even with the cooler temperatures," he said. "My lap was great; the other guys were really good too so we were just right there. It was close."
Keselowski added that qualifying at over was always a gamble. "You have to commit to your lap and basically throw an educated guess at you lap. It's like playing hopscotch in the dark; you're jumping into the square but you don't really know where the square is," he explained.
"You really have to commit to your qualifying lap and trust your setup," he added, describing Saturday's performance as a solid run. "I took it easy on the first lap; sometimes you have to slow down to go fast at Dover."
Two more Chase contenders just missed out on the top ten and will start side by side on the sixth row of the grid for Sunday's race.
"I stuck to my plan and tried to run one hard one," said Jimmie Johnson who was 11th fastest in the session. "Three and four were a bit exciting and I knew I left some time on the table so I had to run a second. I got a respectful lap out of it."
"We struggled a lot yesterday, so it was a good lap," said Matt Kenseth who will begin tomorrow's race from 12th. "It was a decent lap to how we have been running. We were so far off yesterday that we never worked on qualifying at all, so that was our first lap in qualifying trim."
Kevin Harvick will start from 14th position, while reigning champion Tony Stewart will start from 24th place just ahead of the lowest-places of the Chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 25th.
"We were not very good in practice, admitted Earnhardt. "We struggled all weekend really. We just haven't had real good speed ... I don't know what to expect," he said, adding: "It's a lot of different problems."
Elsewhere on pit road this weekend, it was confirmed that Kurt Busch will make his forthcoming full-time move to the Furniture Row Racing team earlier than expected. He will take over from Regan Smith behind the wheel of the #78 beginning with the Bank of America 400 at Charlotte Speedway in two weeks time on October 13, and remain for the final six Cup outings of 2012 ahead of his one-year deal with the team for 2013.
"With these six weeks, we won't go to Daytona with a deer-in-the-headlights feel," said Busch. "We're going to get all the bugs worked out, the newness, the operating procedure, the trips back and forth to Denver," where the single-car team is based.
Busch will run his final two races in the #51 car Phoenix Racing this week at Dover after qualifying in 28th position, and conclude with next weekend's Talladega Superspeedway outing.
"The #51, we're running equipment that's four years old, all 2008 stuff. We did the best we could with what we had. Everybody knows this #78 car has much more potential," he explained. "It is a diamond in the rough, a program that's not reached its full potential. I can't wait to get in the car and deliver."
Full qualifying and practice times