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."
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.