CLICK: Full qualifying results from Charlotte Motor Speedway
Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch clinched his third pole of the season with a lap of 27.357s (197.390mph) at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday night, putting him 0.024s ahead of Jeff Gordon who will start alongside him on the front row for Saturday night's Bank of America 500.
"It seemed like the guy that was the most consistent was able to win the pole tonight - I think we had a .38 then a .33 and then a .36 so pretty good laps there. I felt pretty good about all of them," said Busch after sealing his 16th pole in 360 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
"Made some really good adjustments this time: you have to adjust on these things for these qualifying runs. The track changes just a little bit, but the car and the tyres change too," he added. "It will be different again tomorrow, you can certainly chalk that up for sure. We'll see how this weekend goes and hopefully we can come out of here with a solid weekend and out ourselves in the right spot for continuing on in our Chase here."
Busch is currently in second place in the points standings, putting him in a good position to proceed to the third round of the championship play-offs providing he can keep out of trouble and deliver some solid results here and next week at Talladega Superspeedway.
"First things first, you concentrate on having a good race and running a smart 500 miles here and get yourself in the top ten," he said. "If you do that, you shoot for a top-five, you do that and then you see if you can race those guys for a win and try to punch that ticket."
"Oh my gosh - it's so fast; so much grip and so much commitment," was Gordon's verdict on the qualifying session. "We won't be quite going this fast on Saturday night. But you definitely get to see the difference between how the car turns and how it sticks and what it does under cooler conditions with the track temps coming down versus what's happening during the day.
"The last two runs, I just nailed 1 and 2," added the Hendrick Motorsports drivers. "But the run before that last one, I got into 3 a little bit too hard. Tried to get a little too aggressive through there and washed out the front. So, the guys made an adjustment and I drove in there and I just was a little bit too much. I should have been a little bit more committed because the front end finally, it cut; and I was like 'No!'
"That's all right. That's a great effort. Practising here during the day and qualifying and racing at night is tough. We struggled through a few things today but I'm so proud of this team. That's certainly a good place to start this race."
Fast as it was, Busch's pole position lap was not however the fastest time of the three-part qualifying session as a whole. Instead, that accolade went to his brother Kurt in the #41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet who succeeded in posting a time of 27.167s (198.771mph) in the second round, the fastest qualifying lap at a 1.5-mile track in Cup history. The previous record speed of 198.282mph had been set by his own team mate Kevin Harvick at Texas Motor Speedway in April.
"All in all, it was a good day," said Kurt. "You know, one cool thing is with the reduction of horsepower and downforce next year, the track record should stand for a while. It was a really cool feeling to go that fast."
Busch was unable to carry that pace through to the final round of qualifying however, and will instead start from a relatively disappointing 11th place on the grid alongside Greg Biffle, who like Busch has already been eliminated from the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup championship following last month's race at Dover International Speedway.
"The car had a lot of speed in it, but it was just too tight in the final round," conceded Busch. "[But] it was really good in race trim, so I think we'll have a really good State Water Heaters Chevrolet for Saturday night's race."
With Kurt Busch being unable to carry the momentum through to the pole shoot-out, it will be JGR's Denny Hamlin and SHR's Tony Stewart who will line-up on the second row of the grid, with Ryan Newman starting in fifth place in the Richard Childress Racing #31 alongside team mate Paul Menard.
"It was a good qualifying run really for our team and obviously picked up every session, which is good," said Hamlin. "Worked on the car and got it better and better. Pretty excited about that lap and obviously keep working. I felt like we were better in race trim than what we were in qualifying. [Friday] we'll work on that and that will be our main focus. Try to put ourselves in a good position when we leave this race on Saturday night."
"We stepped it up, really didn't think we were as good as we were there time-wise," Newman admitted after qualifying finished. "I really thought it was going to keep getting quicker. The tyres fell off a little bit more than I expected. It was a good lap for our Caterpillar Chevrolet, our most competitive run was our last run. We will take that. It's not where we want to be, not where I've been here before, but a good starting spot for us for sure."
Despite having paced the sole practice session earlier on Thursday afternoon, Kevin Harvick was unable to continue his recent run of pole performances and will have to settle for seventh place on the grid alongside Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers.
The firth row is an all-Chase line-up consisting of Hendrick Motorsport's Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards.
"I didn't do the best job on my final lap and that's why our second lap on the final run was the fastest one," explained Edwards. "It's tough. You go out there and we ran a good first lap, a good second lap in the second round and then that third round either the car changed a little bit or I changed a little bit and somehow I just couldn't get through turns 1 and 2 very well, but really fast.
"We've got a lot of speed in the car," he added. "The guys did a good job focusing today and it's a top ten starting spot. That's better than last week, so hopefully we can do the same thing and come home with a top five so we can go to Talladega next week and have some fun."
Unusually, neither Penske car made it through to the final top-12 pole shoot-out round. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have both had phenomenal success in reaching the final round of qualifying this year ever since the new elimination round was brought in, with the exception of superspeedways, but neither could progress from the second round this weekend at Charlotte. Instead, Logano will start from 13th place after being edged out of the final transfer spot by two thousandths of a second, and Keselowski will have to make his way forward from 17th place.
"We just got a little loose in the second round of qualifying and when you go back out a third time, there is just too many cycles on your tyres and it's hard to go even faster," Logano explained. "This track is very much on the razor's edge. It takes just a small mistake or the car being just a little bit off to lose some time.
"It's fine though, we can see the front of the field and the car was good in race trim," he added, insisting: "We are going to be alright in the race."
"We've been off a little bit in qualifying trim since we've been here, but I thought our race trim was really good in practice and that's the most important thing so we'll keep working," said Keselowski. "Our first round was not where we wanted to be and the guys worked on it and got us a little more speed. That got us to the next round and then we still didn't quite have enough. It was a good effort by everyone on the #2 crew. We think we have a solid race car. We'd like to have a little more speed in qualifying, but that's how it goes sometimes."
Chase contenders starting from even further back include Kasey Kahne (19th) and his Hendrick team mate Jimmie Johnson (21st) who will start alongside JGR's Matt Kenseth (22nd).
"Just didn't have the speed there on that final run," admitted Johnson, who needs a strong result this weekend to keep his Chase hopes alive after disaster last time out at Kansas.
"I got pretty tight off of 4, I thought we had some hope after the first round and our second outing we ran a very good lap," he explained. "But just didn't have any more there on that lap through turns 3 and 4; we got wide and I had to let off a little bit so I didn't get into the outside wall. It's disappointing. There's no way around it."
Trevor Bayne in the #21 Wood Brothers Ford was the only driver to fail to make the 43-car grid for Saturday's race under the floodlights. Before that, the rest of the field will get two practice opportunities on Friday to fine-tune their race set-ups in advance of the green flag.
See full qualifying results from Charlotte Motor Speedway