Full qualifying results and times from Thursday practice
Jimmie Johnson will start from pole for the first time this season in Sunday's marathon Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, giving him his best shot of the year to clinch the all-important win that he needs to make it through to the Chase in the defence of his Sprint Cup Series championship.
"It's nice to have a fast car off the truck," said Johnson, after setting a time of 27.705s (194.911mph) on the 1.5-mile oval. "We go back to last weekend and we had the fastest lap in All-Star qualifying. It was a decent car in the race; struggled a little bit in traffic. As we get into practice on Saturday, that's really going to be the goal for us.
"I think we have some good ideas to secure the car up and help the clean air balance versus the traffic balance that we've been working on," the Hendrick Motorsport driver continued. "In qualifying today, it was really interesting to start with the sun kind of out and warmer track temps. As the sessions went on, the grip level came in and the adjustments we made got the car better and better.
"To have my fastest lap around here come on my third time out on the track is pretty mind-boggling the way it works out," he added. "So I'm very proud of the team. We had a strong race car all day and are obviously very happy about our performance."
With Sunday's race the longest in the NASCAR Cup calendar at 600 miles, pole winners here rarely go on to claim the race win. Only one person's done it since 1998 - but in Johnson's favour, that exceptional case was his own win here in 2004. He also won from pole here in the autumn race in 2009, and has six Cup race wins at the circuit in total. In total, Johnson can boast four poles in 26 outings at Charlotte, and this weekend is his 33rd Cup career pole in 447 series starts.
"In today's form of racing though, track position is so, so important," Johnson agreed, while at the same time managing expectations for Sunday's race. "I guess statistically and if you're looking at the odds or something, the better you qualifying, it will show with a better performance on Sunday. We feel good about it [but] there's no guarantees with 600 miles. Anything can happen. We're so happy to start in this position [rather] than 20th or something."
Johnson's time in the third round of the elimination qualifying format was 0.049s faster than Penske's Brad Keselowski, who will line up in second place for Sunday's evening race, which is a huge save given that he came within two thousandths of a second of missing the cut at the end of the first round.
"I think this weekend we were right on the edge with 24th in the first round," he admitted. " Quite a few of these scenarios we've been almost right on the bubble if not right out. I think this is our 11th qualifying session of the year and we've been on the edge in each and every one of them.
"The second round we were seventh or eighth and almost got knocked out and then the third round we seemed to find a little bit more, but not quite enough and ended up second.
"But I was pretty happy with our effort here in qualifying today," he continued, sounding relieved. "We were pretty miserable to begin with and it's a credit to my guys. They kept working on it and somehow we ended up second. I'm really not sure how!
"I'm proud of that effort and really happy for my guys to see their hard work rewarded, but the main goal is to win Sunday and hopefully we can pull that off," he added. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run 600 miles and run it as fast as we do.
"I don't know any other sport that runs, not at least on an oval, 600 miles," he pointed out. "I guess you have some endurance racing with road courses, but usually they switch drivers and do all that stuff, so I'm not sure of any other sport or motorsport that does 600 miles straight in four-and-a-half to five hours of competition for one athlete. I think it's probably one of the most difficult challenges in all of sports, but it's one that I embrace and I really like."
The second row will see Johnson's Hendrick team mate Kasey Kahne lining up in third place alongside Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick, a season best qualifying for both drivers and a career best for Patrick at a non-restrictor plate event and also breaking the previous record for a female driver at such a track that had previously been held by Janet Guthrie, who had started ninth at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977.
“The car was really good," she said, praising the adjustments made to the #10 car by crew chief Tony Gibson. "We have a lot to be proud of. I mean let's face it this is the part of the weekend that I dreaded every time. I had to train myself to not say I hate qualifying. We were third in a round, we were first in a round and we were fourth in a round. A lot to be proud of at Stewart-Haas and for the GoDaddy car and it's going to give us a great starting spot for Sunday."
A trio of Toyota drivers will be following Patrick to the green flag with Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch qualifying ahead of Keselowski's Penske team mate Joey Logano. Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr take up the fifth row. behind them will be Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, both of whom failed to reach the start/finish line before the chequered flag came out to declare the end of the pole shootout round.
"We had a big miscommunication tonight and didn't get [Kevin] off of pit road in time to run a lap in the final qualifying session," crew chief Rodney Childers admitted on Twitter afterwards. "Apologies to all of the sponsors and fans. We will make sure it doesn't happen again."
Full qualifying results and times from Thursday practice