Jimmie Johnson's hopes of continuing a pole-winning streak crumbled early in qualifying on Friday for this weekend's penultimate race in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

After starting from the front and going on to win at both Martinsville and Texas to take the lead in the Chase, Johnson slipped to 24th position on the grid for Sunday's race after qualifying on the one-mile oval. His chief rival for the title, Brad Keselowski, couldn't take maximum advantage of Johnson's qualifying slump but will start start ten places ahead from 14th place.

"I expect for Brad to be strong here," admitted Johnson. "He and I raced real hard for third or four positions in the closing laps of the spring race. I would assume that we would be right there running nose to tail once again when the chequered flag falls on Sunday."

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Keselowski said that qualifying didn't change any of his plans for the race: "I'm running to win whatever that means," he laughed. "Win the race and things become a lot easier. You don't have to worry about those things."

Instead, it's non-Chase contender Kyle Busch who claimed pole position for Sunday afternoon's race, with a new track record lap of 25.943s (138.766mph) putting him ahead of Martin Truex Jr. on the front row of the grid.

"We'll take it and it will be a good starting spot for us," said Busch. "Obviously, getting first pit selection and all that's good for us. The M&M's Camry was awesome all day today, can't wait for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can get this thing dolled up for race trim and have a good race car come Sunday."

Although Busch isn't in the Chase this season after missing out on a spot to Jeff Gordon, he explained that he was still very motivated to finish the season on a high and that wins were still as important as ever.

"I think getting a win would be nice," he agreed, talking with reporters after qualifying. "We don't necessarily need a win, but we need to finish well these final few races," he added, pointing out that he'd been right up there competing at the front with the Chase leaders in the most recent events. "We were up there battling Brad and Jimmie at Texas all night long, but we just didn't have the car in the end and of course we've been bitten by fuel in the past, but to win would definitely be a big boost to this team."

Busch's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin will start on the second row alongside Johnson's Hendricks Motorsports partner Kasey Kahne. After that, the next two rows of the grid are free of Chase contenders: Aric Almirola starts from fifth place in his effort to do enough to win him another year at Richard Petty Motorsport, putting him alongside Kurt Busch in the Furniture Row Racing #78.

"That was a good lap for us. It wasn't the prettiest of laps, but it's fast and that's all that matters," said Almirola. He admitted that much needed set-up changes after practice together with a brief spell of cloud cover had helped cool the super-slick track at just the right moment for his qualifying effort: "It seemed like our car had more grip so that was better."

"It was an interesting couple of laps," said Kurt Busch of his own qualifying effort. "I missed it really big on the first lap. Loose; on that edgy side of things. The second lap didn't feel much better, so that means to me there is still a lot of speed in the track. But overall the five laps we've done this year in qualifying with the #78, they've all been on that ragged edge of loose."

Behind them, Paul Menard will line up alongside Regan Smith, who takes the wheel of the #51 Phoenix Racing for the first time after a turbulent few weeks for the driver: after being ousted from the #78 by Kurt Busch, he was due to take charge of the #51 car last month but instead got called up by Hendrick Motorsports to deputise for a concussed Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88. Phoenix replaced Smith with AJ Allmendinger in the meantime, but finally Smith gets the first of his two outings in the car to end the 2012 season.

"I thought it was a good lap. Obviously there's always things you want to do different after the fact, but I feel like we made good changes from practice," he said after finally getting to claim the #51 for himself this weekend. "We'll go race from there. It was a good run for the #51. These guys have been working hard ... I wanted to come out and try to have a good qualifying lap and a good race on Sunday. This team is looking for some sponsorship for next year and we would love to have a good run and help them get that."

Reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart will start alongside Mark Martin on row five, with Jeff Gordon in 11th place, Clint Bowyer in 16th, Kevin Harvick in 19th and Greg Biffle in 20th. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start immediately ahead of Johnson on the grid, with the #48 the lowest of the 12 Chase contenders on the Phoenix grid.

Earlier on Friday, the infield paddock had been abuzz after ESPN published a report claiming that Kevin Harvick had signed to move to Stewart/Haas Racing in 2014 after his current contract with Richard Childress Racing expires at the end of next season.

Harvick is an old friend of team co-owner Tony Stewart, and the team has been strongly rumoured to be looking to add a Chase-calibre driver with a contact set to expire in the next 12 months such as Harvick, with Stewart's former Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch also previously said to be in the frame.

However, neither Harvick, Stewart nor the team would be drawn on confirming or denying the claims by ESPN reporter Marty Smith while preparing for qualifying at Phoenix.

"It's actually Dale Jr., and Marty Smith is going to be in the fourth car. Yeah, that's where we're at," quipped Stewart.

"When we have something to tell you guys, we'll tell you," said a less jocular Harvick. "When we've got something to tell you that's different than what we've got going on, we'll obviously tell you."

"If you're talking about 2014 and if Kevin Harvick is available, that's something the team would have to look at. Any team in this garage would do the same," was as far as Stewart/Haas spokesman Mike Arning was willing to go when asked about the reports.