As soon as his pit crew told him the lap time he'd just posted - 27.877s (193.708mph) on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway quad-oval - Greg Biffle was ecstatic.

"I was sitting in my motor home earlier watching the broadcast and I heard 'em say what the track record was," he said. "So I knew at that point it was a track record, so I was pretty excited about it. And I knew it was going to take a lot to beat it."

The previous lap record (27.948s, 193.216mph) had been set by Elliott Sadler in October 2005 and the top three men in qualifying on Thursday afternoon - Biffle, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman - all beat that benchmark. But it was Biffle who came out of it with pole.

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"I was super excited about that lap because I drove it farther into Turn 1 than I thought would work," he said afterwards. "These cars won't go much faster than that, it was a perfect lap, and I hit all my marks just right on the button."

It's a much-needed boost for Biffle and for Roush Fenway Racing, which have struggled with the first four races of the 2012 Chase and now find themselves in danger of dropping out of the running altogether unless they can score some big successes.

"We've kind of been down in the dumps a little bit because we haven't started out this Chase as strong as we've been all season," Biffle admitted, saying that a packed schedule of testing and racing on six different race tracks in the last two weeks had helped get them back into shape. "We got home last night from Texas, learned a little bit. It helped us here, I think."

The ever-youthful veteran Mark Martin will join Biffle on the front row after missing out on the pole time by five hundredths of a second.

"Everything was dragging, scraping, making noises, smoking, and I smelled rubber, so I said: 'Man, we are rolling,'" said Martin. "I went down into turn 1, and I was just going so fast."

While Martin is not in the Chase this year after dropping back to a part-time involvement in the Cup series, his Michael Waltrip Racing team mates - Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. - both are, and qualified in fourth and sixth place respectively to line up right behind Martin for the green flag on Saturday night' for the start of the Bank of America 500.

Biffle's team mate Matt Kenseth will also start in the top ten, after claiming seventh place in qualifying. Other Chase contenders making top ten starts this weekend are Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson (fifth) and Kasey Kahne (tenth) while the third member of the Hendrick squad - four-time champion Jeff Gordon - will start from just outside in 13th.

The final member of the team, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will be missing altogether from this week's race. Earnhardt admitted on Thursday that he had suffered a concussion during last weekend's massive last-lap wreck that ended up catching out 25 cars, and has been told by medical staff that he needs to take two races off after complaining of headaches.

Earnhardt's seat in the #88 will be taken by Regan Smith, who has been racing for Furniture Row Racing this season but who got ousted from the seat when the team signed up Kurt Busch to race for them in 2013.

"It's an exciting opportunity for me," admitted Smith. "I hate the circumstances around it. Obviously, Dale's safety and getting him healthy are the most important things right now. With that said, it's a great opportunity for me to hop in the race car."

Smith only found out that he was to be offered the stand-in role for Charlotte and Kansas at 7am on Thursday morning and went on to qualify the #88 in 26th position in the afternoon, but he denied that filling in for the most popular and iconic driver in the series added any undue pressure.

"There's pressure every time you sit in a race race and drive," he insisted. "It doesn't matter what car it is. Every driver in this garage feels the same pressure every week. I'm going to put the same pressure on myself this weekend that I did last week and as I did two years ago."

Earnhardt himself says that he wasn't going to be leaning over Smiths's shoulder offering advice over the weekend. "Regan doesn't need any tutoring or anything like that," he said, adding that he wouldn't even stay at the speedway for the race in order that he didn't become a distraction. "He's going to do a great job. I'm excited for his opportunity."

Smith had been due to race this weekend in the Phoenix Racing #51 car - essentially completing a straight swap with Kurt Busch. Rick Hendrick had needed to call the owner of Phoenix Racing, James Finch, to get Smith released from that commitment in order to put him into the #88 instead.

"[Regan]'s a good friend of Dale's," said Hendrick. "Dale likes him, we're familiar with him. We knew he was going to be in James' car, so it just seemed to fit." Hendrick added that the team had already been looking at offering Smith a seat with them in the Nationwide Series next year, if he wasn't able to pick up a more suitable berth at Cup level.

Losing Smith left Finch in a hole with regard to getting a driver to fill in at the team in the #51 Phoenix Racing car. Fortunately, an available driver had presented himself to the team just a few days ago at Talladega looking for any racing vacancies - one AJ Allmendinger, late of Penske Racing until he was fired following a positive result in a random drugs test over the summer.

Now reinstated after completing NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program, Allmendinger has been handed the opportunity to get back into action much sooner than anyone expected - he's missed just 13 races since his last pre-suspension appearance at Kentucky and will start Saturday night's race from 38th position after successfully making the field in qualifying.

"James has always been willing to give a guy a second chance," said Phoenix Racing general manager Steve Barkdoll. "He likes cars that go fast and we feel that AJ can [make them] do that ... When you get somebody like AJ who is kind of down on his luck but can go fast, it's kind of like a natural fit for us."

"I quickly found out I love this sport, and I missed it," said Allmendinger of his three months out of NASCAR competition. "I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world to be able to be a part of it, and to have a second opportunity to be here."

It's unclear who will take the #51 car moving forward. "We told Regan and AJ both that if they got in the car, it would probably be race-to-race," said Barkdoll. "I'm sure if AJ does a nice job we'll see him in the car next week at Kansas."

After that, Earnhardt will likely be back in the #88 and Smith once more knocking on the door to try his hand at the #51. Whether it goes to him or to Allmendinger for the final four races of the season - let alone what the team decided to do in 2013 - depends very much on what happens in the meantime.

Full qualifying results and Thursday practice times are available.